Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Everything about this film is exquisite, from its gorgeously textured cinematography to the delicate performances of its stars."

It's billed as a horror film. School bullying, a kid with a troubled past who gets pushed too far. So far, so run-of-the-mill, but from the opening shot, as we pan through rich autumn woodland watching pairs of girls approach a Georgian mansion, it's clear that Alena is something special. Everything about this film is exquisite, from its gorgeously textured cinematography to the delicate performances of its stars. Nothing has been left to chance, and the result is compelling viewing.

The school doesn't usually take in new pupils mid-term, but it has made an exception for Alena (Amalia Holm) because of what she has been through and because her psychologist has spoken so passionately on her behalf. Though her past isn't revealed straight away, we can see that she's troubled; she keeps her shoulderblades too close together, folds up her fingers, tries to make herself small. Despite this, there's something graceful about her, which the school's lacrosse coach (Johan Ehn) spots straight away. He persuades her to try out for the team. An awkward kid who's also good at sport. You can guess how this goes down with the popular girls.

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As Alena's life is deliberately made more unpleasant (with, amongst other things, scenes of sexual violence which, though they are discreetly shot, some viewers may find difficult to stomach), she finds herself relying more and more on a girl called Josafin (Rebecka Nyman) who seems to be part of her past. But there's something off about Josafin. She plays cruel pranks of her own, deliberately exposes Alena to danger, and tells her that nobody will ever care for her. Is she real, a ghost, or something from Alena's subconscious? Whatever she is, she quickly becomes resentful when Alena grows close to sympathetic fellow pupil Fabienne (Felice Jankell), a striking beauty who seems intrigued by the very things that scare others away.

Capturing the fragile intensity of teenage love is never easy to do. Director Daniel di Grado elicits superb performances from his young stars, not merely codifying their emotions through action, but letting us see them in the raw - in shy glances, spontaneous smiles and sudden self-consciousness. There is so much beauty in this that the darkness, though persistent, never overwhelms the story, and viewers will keep rooting for Alena to the very end. But di Grado's most impressive trick is to show us an equal measure of vulnerability in Filippa (Molly Nutley), the school's queen bee, whose viciousness doesn't have the results she expects. Though no apology is made for her behaviour, a succinct point is made about how privilege can itself leave people weak. There's a hint that her father understands this, but most of the girls' world exists beyond the reach of adult wisdom or authority; they are plunging from the nest and some will not succeed in unfurling their wings before it's too late.

A haunting film with an equally haunting soundtrack, Alena is intense as life always is at that age, but it keeps its balance perfectly. There's a melancholy to it that's rare in such tales, and despite the high drama of some scenes, it always feels fresh and natural. You'd be a fool to miss it.

Reviewed on: 10 May 2017
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A troubled girl arrives at an expensive boarding school and finds herself distinctly unwelcome.

Director: Daniel di Grado

Writer: Kerstin Gezelius, Alexander Onofri

Starring: Amalia Holm, Rebecka Nyman, Molly Nutley, Felice Jankell, Helena Af Sandeberg, Johan Ehn, Ulrika Ellemark

Year: 2015

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: Sweden


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