The Here After from first-time helmer Magnus Von Horn tells the story of an ostracized teenage boy trying to reintegrate into his family and community after a stint in juvenile detention.
The Here After opens on a teenage boy, John (Ulrik Munther), folding his shirts, preparing to pack up and leave. The camera pulls back to frame him in the doorway of his bedroom, where a woman fixes his shirt and offers him a tight, affectionate hug. Next, we see the boy looking through a series of glass windows, each one a barrier keeping him in what seems to be some sort of institution. On the other side of the first door is a man, his father (Stefan Cronwall), who is there to collect him.
Director Magnus von Horn lets the whole scene play out from within the institution’s walls, looking out at the outside world — even the boy’s father’s conversation with the woman is only heard as muted voices from behind a wall. It establishes this institution as a safe space, a home, and the outside world as something unknown and scary. Even when John is in the car with his father to head to their home in the outside world, von Horn keeps the camera in the car, looking forward through the window, creating a sense of unease about where they’re going and what lies ahead.
Their home is in a rural community in Sweden, where John’s father operates a farm — a place of vast expanses and beautiful landscapes, revealed in wide shots, that still manages to feel oppressive, in part because of the quiet. When John returns to school, he’s met with hostility at best and cruel bullying and beatings at worst. His classmates, whom he hasn’t seen in two years since “the incident,” make it clear that he’s not welcome.
The screenplay, also written by von Horn, is coy about revealing the reason for John’s absence. We sense he was in some kind of juvenile detention center, and the violent reaction from a woman he spots in a grocery store — she jumps on him and tries to strangle him — suggest something violent in his past. By withholding the details of John’s crime for as long as possible, von Horn keeps us in John’s headspace: quiet, reserved, frightened, hurt, and subjected to constant abuse.
John’s sweet and meek demeanour may initially seem to contradict the town’s harsh welcome, but it soon becomes clear that he’s so sensitive because of the past. When his classmates hit him, he doesn’t fight back. At school, it’s at least partly because he knows that the slightest slip would lead to expulsion. But he didn’t fight the woman in the grocery store either. We sense that he’s the least violent of all because he knows what can happen when it gets out of control. The way he accepts the abuse from others, verbal or otherwise, is indicative of just how much guilt he’s carrying.
Things start to look up when John meets Malin (Loa Ek), a punkish outsider who takes an interest in him and his dark past. When she asks him what happened, it’s without judgement. She moved to town after John left, allowing her to see the boy that’s standing in front of her for what he is today: a quiet boy in need of affection. She listens with empathy and curiosity. Being with Malin allows John to be gentle and sensitive. Director von Horn focuses on their intertwined hands and limbs as they cuddle in front of the television.
It’s a refuge from the toxic masculinity that John’s father brings out in him. John can be vulnerable with Malin, sharing his fears of being alone. But as soon as she tries to tell his father this, to come to his rescue, John shuts her down with a force we didn’t know he was capable of even though of course his past actions suggested it. John’s interactions with his ex-friends, and their fathers, reveals a troubling, wider culture of machismo. Reacting with force is second nature to the boys and men of the town, while empathy and understanding is almost considered a weakness. Though von Horn doesn’t explore it in much depth, there’s certainly a suggestion that the culture is as responsible for John’s mistake as his own rage was.
Shooting in Scope, an aspect ratio more frequently associated with vast landscapes, von Horn often confines the action to a fraction of the frame. He shoots through doorways, allowing the walls on either side to fill the frame. It’s claustrophobic, and purposeful. For John, the outside world is a prison; prison was a refuge. When John gets beaten by his classmates, it often happens offscreen, as von Horn trains the camera on the perpetrators, John’s body just below the edge of the frame. They’re blind to John’s humanity and the hypocrisy of their own actions. The film’s colour palette of icy blues and grays effectively adds to this drab but beautiful atmosphere. There’s a beautiful world outside, and we can see, but John hasn’t quite figured out how to live there.
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