Saturday, 1 March 2014

Metalhead (2013) - Ragnar Bragason

Adolescence isn’t easy. We’ve all seen plenty of films that tell us that, from James Dean fighting against whatever was in front of him in Rebel Without A Cause, through to John Bender sticking it to the man (well Mr. Vernon) in The Breakfast Club all the way up to Lukas Moodysson’s seminal Fucking Åmal. Being a teen isn’t easy. Even in Iceland it would seem. That’s what Metalhead is about, along with a few other things.

Metalhead kicks off back in the early ‘80s, on a dairy farm in rural Iceland (for rural read rocks everywhere). It’s the bleakest landscape imaginable that could still be described as beautiful. Very fitting for a film dealing with alienation. Iceland looks like the moon fell into the sea. Hera’s (Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð) older brother manages to run himself over with a tractor after she distracts him and dies soon after. The film is about how she and her parents come to terms with their loss. Which sounds like the sort of thing that could so easily be trite and send most people reaching for the off button, but hold up because if Metalhead does one thing well, it’s confounding expectations. On the day of her brother’s funeral Hera storms out of the church marches home burns her clothes and kits herself out in her dead brother’s wardrobe. She blames herself for his death and takes on his persona, falling headfirst into the middle finger to everyone world of Heavy Metal.

Cut to ten years later and not much has changed. Rather than heading into Reykjavík and finding a life, she punishes herself (and her parents) by staying in the tiny community she’s lived in all her life. A community by the way where she is the token weirdo, and she does her absolute best to live up to that title. All of this is played out to a soundtrack of metal tracks that I have to admit was sort of lost on me, but still sounded pretty good. There’s plenty of name dropping, Dio, Maiden, Judas Priest etcetera and there are enough metal band t-shirts to keep the most ardent metalhead trainspotter happy. There are various sub-plots too, that push the story onwards, a new priest arrives in town (I know, but it turns out better than it sounds), her parents gradually dissolving marriage and her childhood friend obviously having the hots for her. There’s also a musical thread about Hera writing and recording her own music. She plays a pretty mean Flying V guitar don't you know.

Anyone who’s ever found themselves at the edge of society will recognize themselves in the character of Hera. One of the things I really liked about this film was the fact that it’s central character is an atypical female, not the usual thing you find in films where women are only there as a prop for the male characters. Hera does things that are questionable but never clichéd. Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð is superb, and really throws herself into the role. It’s hard to say much more about the film without spoiling things. It’s a drama that finds time for humour, there are moments in the film that a different director would have milked for as many tears as possible, but writer/director Ragnar Bragason doesn’t seem in the slightest bit interested in any of that. Which is a relief.

In short I have to say I really enjoyed this. It’s a strange little film and maybe that’s why I liked it so. How many other films can you think of that deal with adolescence by having the main character make herself up in Black Metal warpaint? See, for that alone this deserves a pat on the back, and it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see how this could at heart, be inspired by the recent financial woes that Iceland has endured. Oh and it’s also got the most beautiful church in it that you’ll see at the cinema this year.

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