This review was originally published during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Generally, when you sit down and write a film review, you evaluate the whole. You watch a film, provide a brief introduction outlining your main arguments – and ultimately suggest whether the movie’s any damn good or not – followed by a brief plot outline and an elaboration on the aforementioned argument. I’d rather not have to do this with Stockholm, Pennsylvania though, as there’s just no point.
For a good 45 minutes, I was pretty sure I was watching something pretty special: a brilliantly layered, excellently acted and endlessly analyzable tour de force taking to the Stockholm Syndrome drama with the kind of nuance and restraint rarely pulled from the sub sub-genre. I sat in the screening room, fingers crossed, silently mouthing “please don’t screw it up, please don’t screw it up” over and over again in the vain hope that I’d found my first truly great film of the Sundance festival. And then they screwed it up – completely, utterly and totally – and I was left to sit through half of a pretty crumby film made all the worse by the mastery that had so delicately teased me but a few moments before.
For a film of such nuance to shit the bed so spectacularly is, I suppose, impressive in a way, but bed-shitting – however fun – still needs someone on clean up duty once the party’s over. The wounds will heal, the rampant disappointment will abate, but right now Stockholm, Pennsylvania has hurt me, and it’s hurt me bad.
The first half of the movie (you know, the good half) chronicles the return of Leia (Saorsie Ronan) to her parents after being kidnapped for the best part of 20 years. She doesn’t remember these people, yet finds herself all but forced to act the role of the daughter they never had, playing dress up and threading bead necklaces in some sad, futile attempt to rebuild bonds long demolished. Joy slowly gives way to worry, then on into all-out dismay, as a place Leia once called home morphs into a new prison – a claustrophobic microcosm where her mother treats her like a child and her father seems all but unable to speak to her.
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This is all wonderfully done – and I mean wonderfully. Ronan is fantastic as ever, marking Leia’s travails with expertly timed touches of awkward humor. This is a film where the pauses between the words are just as – if not more significant – than the words themselves, their own stunted spacing reflecting the awkward physical and emotional gaps that swiftly form in this family that never really was and never really can be. And by this, I of course refer to the first half of the film, the second being an altogether smellier kettle of fish.
Suffice to say, (avoiding spoilers) at around the halfway mark Stockholm, Pennsylvania turns on a dime, and then proceeds to throw away everything it’s worked for up to that point. To watch such an initially excellent film fumble so spectacularly – while impressive from a distance – makes for a pretty soul destroyingly disappointing experience up close. All film’s carefully cultivated subtlety is casually thrown out a very high window in favor of the kind of in-your-face visual metaphors that were so wonderfully absent from the opening cadences. The cast try their best, but the muddy, confuzzled melodrama of the film’s prolonged second act proves to be one step too far, with the previously natural, completely believable dialogue giving way to the kind of overwrought and overripe speech patterns that even Lawrence Olivier couldn’t pull off.
The tragically pathetic ending comes straight out of the Screenwriter’s Handbook, but forgets to refer to Common Sense For Dummies, bringing the plot full circle in the most clunky and awkward way possible. The closing few minutes of Stockholm, Pennsylvania are so ridiculous, so contrived – and by that point, so completely inevitable – that it had me and various other viewers audibly groaning. And to think that just 45 minutes before that I thought I’d stumbled onto something truly special. In fact, for a little while there, I thought I was in the presence of true greatness.
Half of a good film and half of not a very good film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania's mid-runtime fall from grace almost needs to be seen to be believed.