Film Review: Simon and the Oaks

The life of the mind trumps family ties in this Swedish coming-of-age tale.

A literary coming-of-age tale in which World War II is just one more obstacle on the road to self-discovery, Lisa Ohlin's Simon and the Oaks (adapted from Marianne Fredriksson's novel) alternates languidly between wistful nostalgia and a more clear-eyed assessment of its protagonist's choices. A slew of award nominations in its native Sweden may elevate its prestige stateside.

A dreamer whose hard-working parents don't have the luxury of intellectual pursuits, Simon convinces his boatmaker father to send him to an upper-class grammar school. There he befriends Isak, a hyper-sensitive Jewish boy ill-equipped to endure bullying from anti-Semitic classmates and terrified by the arrival of Nazis in their community.

Soon, a kind of role-model swap is taking place: Simon is dazzled by the books, art and music he encounters in the home of Isak's father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers), a wealthy bookstore owner, while Isak draws comfort from learning to do something with his hands, helping Simon's dad (Stefan Gödicke) make boats. Soon, Simon's parents take Isak in, offering to insulate him from increasing harassment in the city.

When the film moves from 1939 to 1945, it finds Simon (now played by Bill Skarsgård, son of Stellan) finally ready to make a thorough break with home. Ohlin observes without judgment as the young man shows little regard for his parents' feelings, living an intellectual's life with Ruben and experiencing the world beyond his waterfront village. (A troubling tryst with Katharina Schüttler's Isa, freshly liberated from a concentration camp, offers a kind of emotional turning point.)

Fredriksson's narrative underscores Simon's callousness by pairing his withdrawal with the start of health problems for his mother (Helen Sjöholm, the most emotionally compelling presence here). The device is obvious, but Ohlin doesn't linger on the guilty feelings it provokes, preferring to frame Simon's reaction to his mother's condition as just an interim point on his path to discovering the person he was meant to be.
The Hollywood Reporter