Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky’s moving, funny, and devastating “Homesick” — one of the best films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — opens in a psychiatrist’s office, where Charlotte (the terrific Ine Marie Wilmann) describes her mother as saying she wants to be there, but never really wanting to be there. She’s the kind of mother who, when Charlotte meets up with her, will immediately start bragging about her own achievements, never even bothering to ask after her daughter in any way.
It’s created a deep-rooted insecurity in Charlotte whose pain and loneliness make her desperate and self-destructive. This gives the film the melancholic atmosphere of “Oslo August, 31st” but it’s also peppered with joyous and romantic moments: it has the wit and buoyancy of “Frances Ha”. Although the film may cover well-trodden Sundance ground of a woman learning to love herself, the film is shot with such formal discipline that it’s stylistically in the same league as these two films, a far cry from mumblecore.
When “Homesick” begins, Charlotte’s insecurity has already reared its head in her clingy relationship with her best friend Marte (Silje Storstein) who is about to get married — and move on. Charlotte is also dating Marte’s brother, who, despite being a very nice guy, seems to be more of an excuse for Charlotte to push herself into that family than anything else. Charlotte and Marte work at a dance studio together — the opening credits happen over a witty and gorgeous sequence of the two of them dancing and playing in the studio in soft light — where Charlotte teaches children to dance. We sense, from the warm hugs that she gets from the entire class, at the end of each lesson, that Charlotte’s interest in the job may be because it’s somewhere she can get affection and appreciation.
When her fully grown half-brother, Henrik (Simon J. Berger), whom she’s never met, walks into the studio to see where she works — apparently, she’s been stalking him and he’s decided to return the favour — things start to change for her, not only for the better. She has a lot of curiosity about Henrik, as someone who has never really had a proper home, and he’s got a lot of anger: the story she’s been told, that her mother wasn’t allowed to see Henrik, is not the truth. But she’s desperate for a family connection, and he’s hurting, too, so they eventually agree to meet and be civilized.
She visits his house one night, where she meets his wife and children. Henrik’s wife suggests Henrik and Charlotte go out for a drink together. What follows seems more like a first date than a meeting of siblings. They walk and talk through the streets of Oslo — their own little “Before Sunrise.” When they end up at his place, sharing a bowl of cereal, they make eye contact that lasts just a few beats too long. At the beginning of the night, they were in some kind of limbo between platonic bonding and romantic flirting — both were happening and both were blurred — but this stare, which Sewitsky holds in an uncut two-shot, suggests things may be taking a turn.
Although they don’t know each other, they share a similar trauma from being abandoned, in different ways, by the same woman, their mother, and that’s a powerful bond. In a way, they’re the only people that understand each other’s pain, because it is the same pain. He’s also convenient for Charlotte: gentle and loving while her musician boyfriend is away on tour, but married and ultimately unavailable. It’s both a bad choice and a safe choice.
Sewitsky gives us these beautiful, almost dream-like compositions of Henrik and Charlotte in two-shots, often set against an expansive landscape. But she also holds on their faces during intimate moments, and there’s conflicting emotions at all times: Charlotte wants this but she also doesn’t, because she knows what it means, because it’s shameful, because of what else it will destroy, and because he’s the married one, which gives him all the control in the relationship.
Even as the characters judge themselves constantly, Sewitsky never does: there’s a silence around the relationship between Henrik and Charlotte that tells us there are no happy endings. It’s not even because they’re biologically related, but they’re both emotionally stunted. He already has a home. She’s still trying to find one. It may also be a convenient way for her to destroy her already slowly disintegrating relationship with Marte who is more focussed on becoming a mother than on taking care of Charlotte.
But Charlotte doesn’t know what she wants, and Sewitsky has the confidence to hold on silent moments for longer than may be comfortable, when decisions are being made. There’s a long pause between when Henrik first passionately kisses Charlotte and when she decides to return the kiss. Charlotte also doesn’t want others to know just how lost she is, and there are so many scenes where Sewitzky holds on a tight, tight closeup of Charlotte, for minutes sometimes, as she tries desperately to rein in her tears and hide her pain and sadness.
Earlier this week, director Céline Sciamma told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that cinema is the only art form in which we can share another person’s loneliness. Like “Oslo, August 31st,” “Homesick” is incredibly effective in not just showing us Charlotte’s isolation but making us feel it, too — whether because she’s physically distant from the other characters in a scene or having emotions that she can’t let others see in closeups. Even when celebrating Marte’s wedding, we watch Charlotte standing off to the side, feeling detached, never really welcomed into the world. Through her sweet — and somewhat twisted — relationship with her brother, she’s able to come to terms with what’s going on, and maybe get close enough to rock bottom that she can find a good place for herself in the world. There are no Hollywood endings here, but there is hope.