This tragic tale of untimely responsibilities forced onto young shoulders is a semi-autobiographical bow for director Camilla Strøm Henriksen, who invites us into the world of Jill, a teenage girl just days away from her 14th birthday. But what should be a happy and carefree time for Jill is marred by her having to pick up the slack left by a clinically-depressed mother and an absent father, caring for younger brother Bo pretty much all on her own. It’s heavy-handed stuff, characterised by typically Scandinavian stylishness counterbalanced by plenty of Nordic grit.
The film is a story about people unable or unwilling to face the challenges that life throws at them. A mother unable or unwilling to endure getting out of bed in the morning, let alone care for her offspring. A father unable or unwilling to compromise on the follies of his hedonistic lifestyle, even when it so obviously harms those he loves. A daughter unable or unwilling to confront the terrible realities of her situation. A family unable or unwilling to coexist in happiness and health. Its tragedies are eminently commonplace, but lose none of their impact in their ordinariness.
The whole piece is underpinned by excellent performances across the board. Maria Bonnevie and Sverrir Gudnason are all too believable as the inadequate parents, her all wild-eyed self-doubt and him slimy but repentant selfishness. But it’s the child actors who steal the show; newcomers Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin and Casper Falck-Løvas put in incredible performances as an older sibling doing her best to shield her brother from the horror of the situation and a younger one not quite buying it but appearing to do so for his sister’s benefit.
Exploring issues of depression, teenage angst and parents too mired in their own insecurities and imperfections to be worthy of the title, Phoenix is not the easiest of watches, but compelling throughout. Mental health is a hot topic at the moment and in this Norwegian delve into dysfunctional family life, we’re given a candid snapshot of how it can have disastrous consequences for everyone affected by it, both directly and indirectly. Unsettling but important.