Dome Karukoski’s The Grump was one of the highlights of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Finnish Writer-Director Dome Karukoski’s The Grump is a comedy about an aging parent feeling out of step with the modern age, was also one of the sweetest, funniest, and most emotional films at the Toronto International Film Festival. When introducing the film, Karukoski described the central character (played by Antti Litja) as the sort of man who’s been buying the same Finnish sausages for thirty years, and when he notices the meat content has gone from 95% to 92%, he’ll write a letter to the newspaper complaining. The eponymous grump is based on a series of Finnish books, by Tuomo Kyrö, and he’s so richly realised that several audience members asked how Karukoski knew their father or grandfather.
Having spent most of his life living in the same house he built, tending the land, change is the most terrifying thing of all, and it’s constantly happening in the world around him. Throughout, Karukoski crafts repeated sepia-tinted mist-filled flashbacks to the distinctly Finnish rituals of his young adulthood: chopping firewood, fighting over the temperature of the house with his wife in winter, eating sugar buns. The world is changing faster than The Grump is, and he feels like he’s becoming irrelevant.
When he falls down the stairs in his rural home where he lives alone – his wife suffers from dementia and we watch him visit her as much as he can even though she no longer recognizes him – and it takes days for him to be found, he has to move in with his grown-up, city-dwelling son while he recovers. There, he drives his son and daughter-in-law up the wall with his old-fashioned but well-intentioned ideas. We hope that he can find a way to adapt to the changing times: the only way he can possibly find happiness. Litja is terrific as The Grump, always finding humour, weight, and warmth in a character who can sometimes be frustratingly dense.
The Grump has the same comic sensibility and gorgeous photography as Karukoski’s 2010 black comedy Lapland Odyssey, which also premiered at TIFF, but this is the work of a more mature filmmaker: all of the comedic elements take on emotional weight. Everything about the film is seeped in Finnish culture, and for a couple of hours, it succeeds in making you feel Finnish, too: the cultural specificity helps the film resonate more universally. It’s honest, funny, and heartbreaking, and I can’t wait to see it again.