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Review: Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) – “Poetic, elegant and deeply affecting”

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Not only the feature debut of Reykjavik-native Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson was the first Icelandic film to be shown in a competitive section of the Venice Film Festival – Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) even won the Queer Lion at last year’s edition of La Binennale, and the accolade couldn’t be any more deserved. This affecting piece of filmmaking tackles familiar territory – coming of age, sexual identity, self-discovery – but does so with a distinct, personal voice, immersing the audience in the unique, fascinating world of the remote Nordic land.

Thor (Baldur Einarsson) and Christian (Blær Hinriksson) are two best friends who live in a small fishing village with nothing to do but wander around the beautiful Icelandic landscape. The story kicks off in the summer as the two adolescent buddies hang out by the harbour with other kids and get involved in a mini competition about who’s going to catch more fish. When a proud Thor returns home carrying a case filled to the brim with his catch, only to be ignored by his mother, we immediately realise that life isn’t exactly idyllic for these two boys. Both their families are indeed on the dysfunctional side of the spectrum.

Thor’s father left his mom for some young girl and moved to the city, so the woman is going through an identity crisis. She can’t bear living like a full-time single mom and of course, the children have a hard time reconciling with her willingness to date again. Thor’s two older teen sisters often gang up on the boy, making fun of his pubescent phase and teasing him about his too-close friendship with Christian. Yet, even when he finally gets a break from all the teasing, Thor is caught in the middle of fights between his mom and his rebellious sisters.

Christian has both parents around but he is a lonely child and has to constantly handle his father’s bad temper and alcohol problem. One day he and Thor witness the man being kicked out of a bar, sporting a wound on his face. He beat up another villager, a married guy who’s been outed and Christian’s father most likely has let his abusive ways take advantage of the situation. Those adult dynamics are mirrored in the children’s world where a red-haired teenage bully loves to especially target Thor’s slow-paced puberty and obviously his tight friendship with Christian.

The concept and perception of masculinity are definitely at the center of the story’s thematic thread, stemming from the exploration of Thor and Christian’s friendship. The two inseparable buddies are in that awkward time in their life dictated by rites of passage – despite being just kids roaming the little village and playing around carefree, they are progressively drawn into the pitfalls of young adulthood. As they experience sexual awakening and start hanging out with two girls who are basically their female counterparts, it soon becomes obvious that one of the boys has developed a different set of feelings for his best buddy – something that’s bound to put their friendship to the test.

Truth is the boys are already being tested by life as they deal with their fractured families and the repercussions of living in such a small place where everyone knows each another and rumours fly at the speed of light. Heartstone however isn’t a film about coming out in a time and social environment where being gay wasn’t a welcome option. Sure, the production design hints at a story most likely set in the early 90s and the director has openly based the film on personal life experiences. Yet the main focus of this fictionalised narrative is what truly means to be a man and a good friend, something that transcends place and time.

The promising Icelandic filmmaker has crafted a delicate tale whose portrayal of that time and space rings powerfully authentic yet the lack of specificity on the era provides a suspended-in-time atmosphere that’s heightened by the imposing Icelandic landscape. Guðmundsson has the camera always moving, following the characters as they wander around in such breathtaking nature – an aesthetic reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s work, along with the naturalistic approach with his young actors, which also nods to the classic work of Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The whole cast is perfectly in sync with the helmer’s vision: the adult thespians nail the general malaise of their characters whilst the youngsters effortlessly capture the inner and outer turmoil of youth.

Although it’s more Thor’s film than Christian’s when it comes to the narrative point of view, the heart of the story is their relationship and whether it’s going to survive the hurdles that the adult world will put them through. Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson are equally brilliant at making their friendship vividly believable with incredible chemistry but also provide nuanced insight into each of their character’s psyche when the focus switches from one to the other. We ache for them from start to finish because, despite the specificity of our personal experience, we can relate to that overwhelming, inescapable moment in life when we lose our innocence for good. Poetic, elegant and deeply affecting, Heartstone is a hell of a feature debut, confirming Nordic Europe at large to be a fertile pool of filmmaking talent.

Heartstone is in UK cinemas (limited release) from November 17th and on DVD from January 8th.

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