PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, REVIEW 4: WORLDS APART
Worlds Apart (Denmark, dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
Sara (Rosalinde Spanning) is a 17-year-old girl who has been raised in the Jehovah's Witness religion in Denmark. Though she has never questioned her upbringing, Sara's devout father Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) gives her the first reason to doubt her faith when he strays from the marital bed. Sara's mother (Sarah Kjærgaard Boberg) chooses not to accept his repentance, which in their church gives her grounds for divorce. Mom moves out, and the three kids--Sara has a younger sister and an even younger brother--decide to stay with dad because he has done right by God in confessing. In a flash, the family has split.
At the right age to wonder what this all means, Sara extends her questions and experiments into a more broad social life and ends up meeting Teis (Pilou Asbæk), a surprisingly kind 23-year-old. He walks her home from a nightclub, and further dates lead to them confronting Sara's religious values and finding a modicum of acceptance. One night when Sara misses the train home, however, things go a little farther with some above-the-clothes making out. Not very good at covering her tracks, Sara gets in trouble with the Jehovah elders. Though at first she chooses God's love over man's, the feelings that have been stirred in her are more complicated than that.
It isn't hard to identify where Niels Arden Oplev and co-writer Steen Bille are coming from in this film, though the script doesn't fall as firmly against religion as one might expect. Rather, Oplev creates a surprisingly balanced narrative that gives both sides their say without being disrespectful to either. Sure, the church elders are closed-minded and humiliate Sara with their interrogations, but Teis and his parents are just as closed-minded, insensitive, and self-righteous. Teis never really weighs the depths to which Sara's church is tied to her family and everything she would have to give up for a life with him. Not even after seeing her brother Jonas, who has been kicked out of the brood for reading the wrong books (Jehovah's Witnesses only read religious texts from their own denomination) does Teis fully accept the completeness of Sara's exile.
Based on a true account of one girl's struggles, Worlds Apart is a complicated story, and though a little heavy handed toward the end, a quietly compelling one. Oplev has a rather plain shooting style, one that reflects the humanity of the situation as well as the choices against materialism that Sara and her family have made. The actors are all just as unmannered and naturalistic, with each individual performer distinguishing him or herself with their sympathetic portrayals. Characters expose their own hypocrisies through word and action, and Sara's dwindling beliefs only lose their fortitude when faced with real and believable tests. As a coming-of-age story, her trek is not so much a dismantling of religion, but of a sheltered individual peeking her head out from that shelter to see what else is on offer. The greatest hypocrisy she encounters on both sides is a lack of compassion, and Sara's true desire is just to be left alone and to let others do as they wish in return. She also proves it takes more courage to stand on her own rather than take refuge in the strength of numbers.
Worlds Apart plays on 2/16 and 2/20. - PIFF's website at the NW Film Center
Current Soundtrack: Edwyn Collins, Home Again
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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich