AJFF Review: ‘Simon and the Oaks’

AJFF Review: ‘Simon and the Oaks’

Elizabeth Friedly

Elizabeth Friedly is the Circulation Coordinator and a reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

A softhearted child more interested in his adventures found between the pages than other physical pursuits – Simon isn’t like the other boys, much to the chagrin of his workingman father. It’s a story we’ve heard told and re-told in countless incarnations.

p12 arts&life Simon and the OaksAnd yet despite the initial smack of cliché, “Simon and the Oaks” unfolds to tell a refreshingly complex and sometimes painful look at family and personal identity.

Based on the novel of the same name by Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson, “Simon” is presented in two parts. The first takes place during Simon’s childhood (the young Simon portrayed by the adept and wonderfully sensitive Jonatan S. Wächterat) at the start of the Second World War. The second features Simon as a young adult (played by Bill Skarsgård) at the war’s closing.

Although not necessarily present in the film, the war still serves as the catalyst for most of the significant events in Simon’s life. Growing up in the rural countryside of Sweden, Simon’s parents quickly come to terms with the fact their child’s intellect would be better served with a formal education. Upon arriving at the highbrow school, Simon becomes fast friends with a fellow student, a Jewish boy named Isak.

As the war progresses, both Isak’s home life and the country become increasingly volatile, to the point where it is decided that it would be best for him to stay with Simon’s family. This is the beginning of a life-long bond between the two households; a congregation of multiple and sometimes-conflicting parental figures in the boys’ lives.

One of the most poignant scenes is when Simon attends the naming ceremony of Isak’s daughter. As the ceremony is carried out, Isak’s mother openly weeps, overcome with emotion at the sight of her granddaughter proudly accepted into Judaism, void of the fear and shame that burdened her own life.

Although there are some flickers of romance, they are just that – brief moments – in a largely somber film. “Simon” has moments of great joy and vulnerability, but many of the characters find themselves consumed by doubt and insecurity.

Simon’s reactions can be difficult to watch, though Skarsgård plays him with a convincing youthful petulance and unpredictability. The last third of the movie is full of suspense, as Simon unravels the secrets of his past.

Masterfully shot over breathtaking locations and pared with an incredible soundtrack, “Simon and the Oaks” is a tumultuous, thoroughly moving experience.

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