“The Ice Dragon” is a family movie.
That doesn’t mean the same thing to Swedish director Martin Högdahl as it might to an American audience.
For one thing, no American family movie would have an 11-year-old protagonist so often by name refer to his dad’s heavy metal band, The “M******s.”
Högdahl says he’s aiming at an “audience of kids aged 8 to 12. Sweden hasn’t had many good films in that age group.”
“The Ice Dragon” is a family movie not because it’s packed with kid-safe genre conventions; it isn’t.
It’s a family movie because it asks what a family is. It gives an answer too — an answer from somebody who trusts his moral sentiments.
Högdahl’s film will be screened at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Regency Lido Theatre as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival.
“The Ice Dragon” is the story of a boy named Mik (Philip Olsson), who holds together his small family by cooking dinner. His father (Per Bolander) is an alcoholic burnout of a drummer. His big brother (Vincent Grahl) is his hero and a bit of a delinquent; they watch zombie movies together.
After school, Mik likes to go to the Museum of Natural History to listen to blue whales sing. The movie opens at the museum, where a docent explains their behavior: “They sing to stay together.”
The docent’s explanation is the movie’s backbone, returning in voiceover at key moments and laying the ground for a pitch-perfect finale.
Mik’s combustible home life explodes before long, with police and social workers coming to set the plot in motion. Mik is sent off to stay with his aunt Lena (Malin Morgan) in a small village in the far north of Sweden, where he falls in with an adorable crew of cat-kidnapping preteens, until social services uproots him again.
“It’s the system that’s wrong and is not working,” Högdahl said in an interview. “We have a social problem.”
His intent was not to attack social workers, though.
“If the basic job is tough, then we’ll show it’s tough,” he said. Högdahl’s social workers are by no means ogres, but the system they represent struggles as much as his dysfunctional characters.
“Everybody’s struggling with that, to find a place in your heart that feels like home,” he said.
The film is Högdahl’s first feature, but he deflects credit for its lush look and quick pacing.
“I had a lot of help,” he said.
His camera finds warm, glowing domestic spaces as refuge from the cramped, dark corners of Stockholm and the vast winter of the northern country.
His editing plays with tonal shifts throughout, from whimsical digressions to set pieces, where the tension gets ratcheted up and then bursts in slow-motion, heavy-metal ecstasies of escape and liberation.
Like Mik, Högdahl spent his childhood watching his favorite movies over and over.
“I grew up on 1980s American films — Spielberg, John Hughes,” he said. “I know the author (Mikael Engstrom) is very influenced by ‘Stand by Me.’”
If that influence shows up in the casting (somebody tell Spielberg about Olsson) and in the adventures the kids undertake, the movie is still “very much in the tradition of Nordic storytelling,” Högdahl said.
Sweden has a tradition of storytelling cafes, where people gather to tell life stories. It also has traditional folklore, where truths and strange possibilities lie far in the north.
“The Ice Dragon” has a bit of both.