Every year, as surely as the changing of the leaves, we get a tasteful European import about a winsome child coming of age during World War Two. This year that movie is Simon and the Oaks. Such films are rarely bad, but there’s also, seemingly, a limit as to how good they will be. So as not to risk their tastefulness, these pictures invariably play it safe and dutiful, repeating familiar beats like some sort of secular Passion Play of innocence getting lost when exposed to sex, lies, and Hitler.
This time around, it’s Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter) in the cable-knit sweater vest and short pants. In 1939 Sweden, the doe-eyed nine-year-old enjoys the wide-open spaces of his country home outside Gothenburg, especially as enjoyed from the embracing dream branches of a giant oak tree. Inside, life isn’t so swell: Simon and his father (Stefan Godicke) just can’t seem to understand each other. Tough-minded Papa puts stock in working with his hands, while sensitive Simon lives a life of the mind. When Simon thrillingly finds a friend by defending the bullied Jewish boy Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), matters start looking up. Isak’s home is a wonderland to Simon: here are books and music, warm affection, and a father (Jan Josef Liefers) who encourages culture and conversation. Ironically, when Simon plays host to Isak, Simon’s father takes to Isak, enlisting him to learn the craft of boat-making in which Simon shows no interest.
No, the boys weren’t switched at birth, but Simon and the Oaks is at its best in exploring the psychology of the adopted. Screenwriter Marnie Blok and director Lisa Ohlin confidently navigate this admittedly familiar terrain (established in Marianne Fredriksson’s bestselling novel) as Simon reacts to the lies he’s been told, fails to understand his parents’ best intentions, and seeks comfort outside the home, from the oak to Isak’s father to, eventually, women (Katharina Schuttler, then Erica Lofgren). Perfunctorily (and necessarily), the winds of war make their way through the story, the most palatable informing Simon’s knotted family-tree, and the most bothersome coming as a sadomasochistic sexual kink derived from Nazi abuse (the film’s single test of tastefulness). Mostly, Simon and the Oaks focuses on the boy being father to the man (Bill Skarsgård, Stellan’s son, takes the baton from Wächter).
What he learns in the process is that life is complicated. Through it all, art and imagination can be great comforts, but so can other people, love meaning overcoming resentment in favor of empathetic forgiveness and gratitude. Nicely acted, nicely filmed, and nicely scored, Simon and the Oaks is foreign-film comfort food, rewarded for its trouble with a record thirteen Swedish Academy Award nominations last year. See you next year, WWII Europe.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]