Phoenix (Føniks) (2018)

Phoenix, director Camilla Strøm Henriksen’s debut, is an understated, sad film cutting across genres, a realistic story of children and catastrophically selfish parents with supernatural elements.

Norwegian Noir

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

It’s two days before Jill’s (a superbly nuanced performance by Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin) 14th birthday. As she returns home from school, she doesn’t know what state her mother will be in. Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) is an artist who seems to be suffering an alcohol-related breakdown, and what’s more, she’s got the date of her daughter’s birthday wrong. Jill behaves as the only adult in the family: she has to care for her mother and also be a mother to her little brother Bo (excellent Casper Falck-Løvás).

Their absent, estranged father Nils (Sverrir Gudnason) is an emotionally immature jazz musician who is coming back from touring to celebrate Jill’s birthday on Saturday, when he also has a gig in Oslo. Both parents are supremely selfish: they can be because they rely unreasonably on a young daughter who is still hardly more than a child. It’s harrowing to watch.

Jill tries to cajole Astrid to go for a job interview arranged by her concerned friend Ellen (Kjersti Sandal) – all she has to do is turn up to get the job. Can Astrid do it or will the stress be too much for her? Can Jill cope with the adult responsibilities she has shouldered prematurely or will she crack under the strain? A tragedy happens and the turning point is how she deals with it: is she is mature enough to or is she, as a child, too traumatised?

Phoenix is shot in dark, restrained tones. It’s unremittingly grim for the first half hour in its observation of the details of Jill’s life. As the plot takes hold, there are sudden, brief supernatural, horror-like images that may come from Jill’s subconscious. In contrast, scenes with the father are in blinding white – the impractical white suit, the pristine modern furniture.

But Phoenix is not a horror genre film, except in the casual cruelty of two people who should never have become parents as they unthinkingly inflict emotional pain on their vulnerable children, who nevertheless manage to still love them. Jill’s joy at receiving the gift of a pink sparkly dress is almost unbearable to watch: the restaurant is also lit in warm pink. However, effectively downbeat as many scenes are, the film could have benefited from a more solid conclusion, though it does leave us with a metaphorical ticking time bomb.

Phoenix is released on 13 September 2019 in the UK.

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