Heartstone (2016)

A simmering study of youth and sexuality set against jaw-dropping Icelandic landscapes, Heartstone gets kids right, if not necessarily which kids to focus on.

Teenage Kicks

by Gus Edgar

Heartstone

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Heartstone is a simmering portrait of adolescence and an assured feature debut from director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, taking advantage of an Icelandic fishing village’s sugar-coated vistas to muster up exterior beauty where interiority is kept at arm’s length.

The film follows two best friends – Thor and Christian, played by Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson respectively – as they wander around this open setting, discovering themselves, and, with time, each other. You see, Christian’s love towards Thor isn’t strictly platonic, and through the course of the film these emotions slowly reveal themselves. It’s a study of teen sexuality, if not necessarily teen sex – Thor’s exploits with a crush, Beta (who seems to be one of very few girls in the village) only serve to point out what Christian is missing. With a friendship slowly shifting under uncertain sands, jealousy rears its ugly head, along with shame and depression. Now the immense landscapes only belittle Christian, isolating him among the surrounding vastness.

Why then, that the film decides to turn its attention moreso to Thor’s endeavours, is anyone’s guess. His plight is by no means uninteresting, but it’s certainly less interesting than his best friend’s. As such,
Heartstone veers close to a coming-of-age territory that has already been tread upon, though Guðmundsson injects these sequences with enough humanity and vibrancy to the point where Heartstone remains a wholly rewarding and fascinating watch. The opening sequence, in which a group of kids including the two boys stumble across a shoal of fish, simply gets kids right. The dialogue is sharp and endearing, and their expressions are honest. In fact, much of Heartstone is comprised of these painstakingly truthful sequences of adolescence, and this is where the film manages to get under the skin of its protagonists.

Unfortunately, at over two hours long, it’s bound to hit a few bum notes along the way. A ginger bully (why do bullies always have to be ginger?) reeks of one-note antagonism, there’s a ridiculous egg-pilfering sequence that tries to create drama where the film needn’t, and Thor’s family life is underdeveloped to the point of unintended incomprehension. It’s not that Heartstone is too distracted, but that it’s not distracted enough, where attention is rewarded to Thor’s adolescent journey but not to his two sisters’ (one reads poetry, the other is mean-spirited, and that is the extent of the film’s ambition in characterising them). In an exploration of growing up and what being a teenager means, there’s a lot to admire – unexplored desire, simmering repression, and an assurance in setting apart its characters from genericity while being restrained enough to maintain their truthfulness. Yet by dividing its attention unequally and choosing to eventually transform its sprawling slice-of-life strands to a single source, Heartstone becomes decidedly one-note – thank God that note is beautiful.

Heartstone is released on 17 November 2017 in the UK.

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