Movie Review - Heartstone (Hjartasteinn)

This film is from Iceland, an island nation in the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway, just north of Great Britain. This film premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival where it won the Queer Lion Award. It was nominated for 16 Edda Awards, which are Iceland's version of the Oscars. It won 9 Edda Awards, including Director of the Year and Best Film. It was Iceland's submission for the Nordic Council Film Prize, which attempts to acknowledge the best movie from the five, European countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. These were all strong indicators that this film was going to be Iceland's official submission to the 90th Academy Awards. Iceland has been submitting films to the Academy since 1980. It's been shortlisted twice and only nominated for Best Foreign Language Film once, back in 1991. Unfortunately, Iceland submitted Under the Tree (Undir Trénu) as its official submission to the Oscars, but I feel the country made a mistake.

Unlike Under the Tree, this film isn't or doesn't feel totally modern or arguably in any time past the year 2010 or even 2000. The entire film takes place in a rural area in East Iceland, far, far away from Reykjavik, the capital and largest city on the island. All the technology seems from 30 years ago or longer. There are no cell phones. The television box is a box of the cathode ray variety and not a flat screen. The video game, the only video game located inside a convenience store, looks like an old arcade. The only working vehicles appear to be farm equipment, perhaps from the mid to late 20th century, which would explain certain attitudes about the film's main subject matter.

Baldur Einarsson stars as Thor, a 13-year-old boy who lives with his two older sisters and single mother in a quaint, little house near the coast and cliffs. He and his friends don't seem to be in high school yet. They don't seem to be concerned about it at all. This film probably takes place in the summer before his high school years, as there appears to be a shift for Thor from juvenile to more adult things, meaning sex. This film is his exploration of that with a slight dabbling in a possible same-sex attraction.

Written and directed by Guõmundur Arnar Guõmundsson, the film opens with Thor catching glimpses, if not outright staring at his shirtless friends. He is at once curious and perhaps longing. He looks into a mirror and kisses it. He peers at his own body reflecting on his growth and physical changes. He is either just gawking or he's allured, indicating of course some urges within, but there is also an instinct to hide it, mainly because his sisters are inclined to enter his room without knocking whilst he's asleep or naked and acting on those urges in his bed.

Yet, the fact the film feels like it's set in the past is another explanation for Thor or anyone else's instinct to hide such urges or explorations. Otherwise, one might find it odd, given that Iceland is seen as a very progressive state, especially since 2009 when Iceland become the world's first to elect an openly gay person as head of its government. This is no cure for homophobia, but it would make certain actions here a tad off. Guõmundsson is clearly looking back on his countryside and not in nostalgia as is the tendency these days but instead with stark concern and possibly a little regret.

Thankfully, the homophobia never comes from anyplace external. It's mainly internal, primal reactions due to gender stereotypes of what masculine is or should be. What is brilliant about Guõmundsson's film is how it rejects those gender stereotypes in brief moments, much like the bucket full of rotting fish that Thor brings home one day. Of course, there is the obvious homo-eroticism, the horseplay between Thor and his best friend. His sisters though tease them as being boyfriends, which they never really refute. The sisters even strip them bare and put the two boys in drag, which they don't really fight either.

Blaer Hinriksson co-stars as Christian, the best friend in question, a tall, beautiful, blonde-haired boy who in a few years time could be easily mistaken for the titular character in E. M. Forster's Maurice, not only in countenance but in perhaps temperament and disposition. In a possible ode to the 1987 Merchant-Ivory drama, there is even a scene of Thor climbing into the bedroom window of Christian. Yet, it's Christian who displays more outward expressions of same-sex attraction.

For 75 minutes, however, there is a legitimate question of which one of the two boys is actually gay. Some might be disappointed to learn this story isn't a romance. It's a friendship, a loving one for sure, a very strong bond, but not of the romantic sort. Arguably, both explore the idea but distinctively one is gay and the other is not. Guõmundsson keeps it in the air about which one is which.

Therefore, this film can be placed firmly in the wave of recent films from around the world, mainly outside the English-speaking nations, about young men who are perhaps still school-age and who live in some rural area exploring what could be considered homosexual relationships. A scene in a pool here reminded me of Mischa Kamp's Boys (Jongens) from the Netherlands and even Papu Curotto's Esteros from Argentina. As with Kamp and Curotto, this film swims in the same sensuality and plotless narrative, driven by desiring acknowledgment and acceptance of feelings and emotions of the queer kind.

Not Rated but contains some language and some nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.

In Select Theaters on Sept. 29, including the Laemmle Music Hall.
Available on DVD and VOD on Oct. 10 via Breaking Glass Pictures.


If you like this film, also check out Fair Haven and Being 17.

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