Scandinavian cinema makes a stop in the U.S.A.
All sorts of great things can happen when a foreign director makes a film in the U.S.A. without compromising his or her own style. A somewhat overlooked entry at this year’s Festival du nouveau cinéma, Louder Than Bombs is a deeply moving portrait of a family two years after a mother’s suicide—which makes it sound much darker than it really is.
There certainly are tough scenes, but overall it is filmed with great amounts of light and offers great hope for its characters. It’s strangely feel-good, and not in the Hollywood way—it subtly avoids formulas and trite resolution, going for a non-linear structure that alternates between various points of view.
As the film starts, we quickly learn that it’s been two years since Isabelle—a successful war photographer from France (played by Isabelle Huppert)—died in a road accident, leaving behind her American husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Gene and Jonah seem to have moved on—Gene is seeing Conrad’s school teacher, Hannah (Amy Ryan), while Jonah, a recent PhD graduate, just became a father. Conrad, however, is a troubled teenager left mainly to himself.
Conrad—who is the closest thing to a central character—also doesn’t know that his mother purposefully caused the road accident that killed her. His mother’s close colleague, Richard (David Strathairn), is preparing to publish an article that reveals this fact, so Gene is finally forced to tell his son.
This is a challenge because the communication between the two is very limited. Gene attempts to anonymously hang out with his son by playing the online video game on which the teenager spends his nights, but is unceremoniously slain. When Gene tries to initiate an in-person conversation, Conrad would rather put a plastic bag over his own head and start choking himself rather than listen to his father.
For a good part of the film, the viewer has no idea of what goes on in Conrad’s head and that silence is frightening. However, as soon as you start seeing things from his perspective, and once he lets his brother Jonah into his world by sharing a short essay he wrote, the film’s most visually adventurous sequences start rolling out in a torrent of empathy.
The cast is too good for words. While you’ve come to expect that level of commitment from Huppert or Byrne, one of the film’s main qualities is a spectacularly promising performance by Devin Druid as Conrad. He embodies teenage angst—the loneliness and confusion—but also an interior life of turmoil in a way that hasn’t been done this well in a long time.
The Norwegian director Joachim Trier chose to set the film in the U.S.A. but has given it a freedom of form more widely associated with European cinema. The scenes that are intertwined with the narrative to tell the story are not so much flashbacks as thoughts, memories and dreams. The characters’ inability to express their feelings and rationalize Isabelle’s suicide, which didn’t seem to be rooted in any clear motive, results in long stretches of coldness—a characteristic of Scandinavian cinema—that are punctuated by brief outbursts of aesthetic power.
Louder Than Bombs may be one of the best films of the year—a surprisingly unsentimental but quite emotional look at the process of grieving, but also teenagehood and family dynamics. The director allows for his characters to be flawed and approaches them with sympathy as they try to better themselves and the understanding they have of each other.