Phoenix

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin in Phoenix
"Thedin is excellent in the central role, perfectly balancing Jill's wisdom and insight with her vulnerability and sometime naivety."

Jill (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin) is about to turn 15. Most young people that age would be focused on exams, career plans and busy social lives, but Jill is one of the roughly 7% of young Norwegians with some degree of care responsibility, and life for her is very different. Her mother, a former artist who still dreams of creating new work and returning "like a phoenix" to her past glory, is mentally ill and struggles with even the most basic household tasks. Trying to keep her safe whilst gently nudging her to make an effort towards recovery, Jill has to look after their home and her little brother Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås), and we get the impression that she's been doing this for a long time. The news that he itinerant father is planning to visit for her birthday gives her a fresh rush of hope, but shortly before his arrival she makes a discovery that threatens everything.

Beautifully detailed and observant, Camilla Strøm Henriksen's accomplished début is a film about that very particular, nameless emotion that comes from realising one is the only person willing or able to take responsibility for a situation - a strain of disappointment made more redolent by what one's own efforts demonstrate is possible. Jill banks everything on her father, whom she has built up in her mind as her mother's polar opposite, a cosmopolitan man whose success as a musician is indicative of some deeper goodness. But why did her parents separate in the first place? What led to her mother's breakdown? And what is he hoping to get out of this reunion after so long away?

Henriksen isn't the type of filmmaker to deliver answers through simple exposition. She's far more interested in exploring her characters' ideas about themselves and one another, looking at what happens when they come together, at what has happened invisibly when they were apart. Phoenix also explores ideas about truth and the framing of reality - the way that, for a marginalised character like Jill, being in possession of the facts may not be enough to guarantee getting taken seriously. For all her devotion and hard work, however, Jill isn't portrayed as superhuman. Part of the film's power derives from the way that Henriksen reveals her as someone who is still a child with needs that are failing to be met.

Thedin is excellent in the central role, perfectly balancing Jill's wisdom and insight with her vulnerability and sometime naivety. When a man at a party asks her age it suddenly snaps one back into focus, a reminder that there are things in the adult world that she's not ready for, that she can't be an adult yet despite doing a good impression of one. Her brother, sheltered by her efforts, is enjoying a real childhood, but even he can't wholly escape the impact of what has happened to their mother. Their father's glamorous world and the excitement of the birthday celebrations give parts of the film a sense of excitement and suggest a life full of possibility, but undercutting it all is the inescapable awareness of how mundane Jill's life really is, how many young people struggle as she has with no clear avenue of support.

Intelligent and uncompromising, this s a film that may break your heart but one you won't want to miss.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2019
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Phoenix packshot
From a young age, Jill has acted as the responsible adult in her small family. She cares for her loving but mentally unstable mother and her younger brother. The news that their estranged father will be visiting on Jill's birthday gives the children much needed hope.
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