Hanna Slak’s Not a Word and Ninna Pálmadóttir’s Solitude are predictable films about intergenerational connections between lonely people but are elevated by thoughtful, sensitive direction by their first-time filmmakers. .
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Nothing makes you feel lonelier or more unimportant than an intrusive ringtone that takes the person you need most out of the moment in Hanna Slak’s Not a Word and Ninna Pálmadóttir’s Solitude. In Not a Word, Nina Palcek’s (the always excellent Maren Eggert, I’m Your Man) ringtone interrupts every time she starts to emotionally connect to her grieving son, Lars (Jona Levin Nicolai). In Solitude, 10-year-old Ari’s (Hermann Samúelsson) parents call him to interrupt his time with middle-aged Gunnar (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson), who has nobody else in his life. Both films are predictable stories of intergenerational connections between lonely people — a mother and son, a father figure and a son. But the thoughtful, sensitive direction from their first-time filmmakers elevates them both.
Ninna Pálmadóttir’s film Solitude
When Solitude opens, Gunnar gets pushed off the farm his family has held for generations. A nearby recently constructed dam is about to put his home underwater. He heads for the city and buys an apartment the same day, inheriting the home and furniture of someone else’s life. The only signs of his past are three carefully chosen photographs of his parents, horse, and cousin in Canada. He’s barely keeping his head above water. He spends his days adjusting to urban life: walking the neighbourhood, riding the bus, and going to the pond that never fully immerses him in the beauty and tranquillity of nature that his home once did. Pálmadóttir captures Gunnar staring out of windows in his home and the bus, often without ever showing us what’s on the other side: life is outside and for other people.
On one of his morning walks, Gunnar encounters paperboy Ari, a sweet and gregarious kid whose parents are too busy to give him the attention he needs. After forgetting his key one day, Ari knocks on Gunnar’s door like he’s in About A Boy. They play chess, and visiting Gunnar soon becomes a regular thing. When Ari’s parents catch on that Gunnar can also serve as free childcare, they encourage it all the more. It’s a well-worn setup, and you can anticipate every beat. What’s surprising is how affecting the film is.
Repeated visual motifs add weight without sentimentality in the film Solitude
As a child, Ari is largely oblivious to how much he’s changing Gunnar’s life. Whenever his parents call him to let him know they’ve arrived, Ari packs up, says goodbye, and never looks back. Gunnar watches Ari depart through his window and eavesdrop on his conversations with his parents. As a repeated visual motif, it reminds us that Gunnar isn’t officially part of Ari’s life.
Pálmadóttir reveals the sea change for Gunnar through thoughtful blocking and production choices. Gunnar’s clothing increasingly mirrors Ari’s; if Ari wears green on one visit, Gunnar will be wearing green on the next. Gunnar takes every suggestion so seriously, so eager is he to please this boy who brings joy to his life. When Ari’s mother suggests they could have pizza on their next visit, we cut to Gunnar in the supermarket. He’s loaded three frozen pizzas into his cart. After Ari expresses concern about the migrant crisis in Iceland, we cut to Gunnar hopping on a bus to do something about it. The reveal for this is gradual and hilariously sweet and involves a duffel bag full of cash.
Gunnar feels like a relic of another time. He owns a radio, not a TV. Ari has a cell phone, but Gunnar doesn’t. Gunnar shows up at a bank for a large withdrawal, wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a blazer. He doesn’t quite know how to live in a modern, urban world. Despite their age differences, Gunnar and Ari are united because they don’t quite understand the world around them. Sometimes, it feels like Gunnar’s cluelessness is an excuse for light comedy or plot-driven. But Ari’s obliviousness is always believable because he’s a child. It allows Pálmadóttir to avoid sentimentality, even in the film’s most maudlin scene. When Gunnar gets sentimental, Ari falls asleep.
Hanna Slak’s film Not A Word
Having a single mom with a high-powered job rarely afforded to women is tough in Not a Word. Nina is a conductor in Germany, so consumed by work that she’d prefer to put words in her son’s mouth than take the time to exchange them. When he falls out of a window at school, shortly after a classmate died on campus, Nina quickly concludes it was an accident. She asks Lars to confirm her diagnosis rather than allow him to tell his story. She has to return to rehearsal; a concert is coming up soon.
We’re not so sure it was an accident. We repeatedly see how Lars has been affected by the death of his classmate. He stares longingly out that window at the drop before he falls. It’s not the last suicidal impulse he shows in the film. His teacher assures Nina that since the girl who died was in a different class, her death has nothing to do with Lars. But they were friends, something even Nina secretly knows but doesn’t know how to disclose.
An absent but caring mother in the film Not A Word
Nina may be busy, but she’s not indifferent. So when she offers a weekend away to Lars, she agrees to his unreasonable demand to travel far away to their summer home in France, even though it’s the winter and she must return home soon for her concert. Windswept landscapes ensue as the pair head to a highly symbolic island where they have no choice but to confront their issues and connect. The film directly takes its title from Lars’s comment to his mother about her inability to articulate her thoughts and feelings to him.
Exceptional blocking elevates the film Not a Word
But it could just as easily apply to how mother and son repair their relationship as these movies require. There are no grand gestures or big emotional conversations. Secrets come out. But they find a common language through restoring a boat together. I swear it doesn’t feel as cliched as it sounds because the performances and Slak’s direction sell it.
Slak’s blocking in Not a Word is exceptional. The film’s opening scene quickly establishes the disconnect between mother and son. We follow Lars’s drone through their apartment one morning as it tracks down Nina, preparing for work at the piano. We cut to Lars in his bedroom, getting ready for school. They live in the same space but don’t appear in the same space or shot until minutes in.
Slak continues to find ways to show us how Nina and Lars inhabit two different worlds, even in the same shot. She’s distracted by her phone; they look in opposite directions. They orbit around each other but don’t connect. On the drive to France, Slak shoots Lars from outside his window, looking out at the landscape, with plenty of space around him in the frame. Meanwhile, Slak only shoots Nina from the car’s driver’s side; Lars never enters her frame.
Forced proximity in Hanna Slak’s film Not a Word
Once they arrive on the island, Nina spends her time chasing after Lars, emotionally and physically. When they go hiking, and she wears inappropriate shoes, she’s constantly following behind him, in an image that reminded me of Lionel Baier’s Continental Drift (South). It’s not until she can get him to slow down and stop that they start to connect — and of course, just as he’s about to reveal how he’s feeling, her cell phone goes off. Eggert is such a compelling performer that she makes the scenes of Nina and Lars not talking to one another full of tension.
Shot by the always excellent cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), the stormy island with its grey skies and harsh, rocky landscapes provides the necessary pathetic fallacy for the quietly stormy relationship — and, of course, a reason to trap the pair there longer to sort out their issues.
There’s nothing particularly new in Not a Word; Slak’s first screenplay is very much a one-idea film. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully shot, acted, and constructed first feature, which makes me eager to see what Slak does next. Plus, anyone with the good sense to give Maren Eggert a starring role in their first outing as director is someone who knows what they’re doing.
Related reading/listening to Hanna Slak’s film Solitude and Ninna Pálmadóttir’s Solitude
More films like Not a Word and Solitude: Hope Dickson Leach’s (excellently written) feature debut The Levelling is a touching story of reconciliation between a father and his adult daughter after the death of her brother. Read our interview with Dickson Leach here. Kris Rey’s I Used to Go Here closes the intergenerational gap (it’s about 10 years) for a story of a woman revisiting the place she went to college and befriending, for a weekend, the current students.