Simple, honest and very possibly great, "Oslo, August 31" spans a day, an evening and an early morning in the life of a recovering drug addict. Right there most of you reading this review will think: No, thanks. Life's difficult enough. But some films, the best films, transcend the obviously grueling and the emotionally exploitative in their pursuit of a steady, humane cinematic gaze and an experience that lingers. This is one of those films, now in its commercial Chicago debut at the Siskel Film Center.
It's the sophomore feature from director and co-writer Joachim Trier, born in Copenhagen but raised in Norway. (He identifies himself as Norwegian.) His full-length feature debut, "Reprise," was a much more elaborately embroidered affair (I loved it), about two young aspiring novelists, their promise, petty rivalry, deeper friendship and restless race toward the future. "Oslo, August 31" is quite a different achievement, calmer and darker. But it's no less absorbing in its storytelling.
Anders, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, is 34 but looks a decade younger. Built like a whippet, he comes from a comfortably well-off upper middle class background. His promise is obvious, as is his watchful intelligence. But he is struggling in rehab, outside Oslo, at the film's start. Ten months clean and sober, he's granted a leave and a visit to Oslo, for a job interview at a magazine, and for an increasingly rich and troubling journey down memory lane.
The city holds a thousand memories for Anders, as it does for everyone, from anyplace. A blur of home-movie-style footage, the film's prologue, which like just about everything else here seems spontaneous and perfect, accompanies the voices of various Oslo residents recalling what the city meant to them growing up. "Everyone smoked back then," says one. Another recalls "how my bed didn't fit into the flat."
Anders drops in on old friends, old lovers and, toward the end, a nighttime party offering a variety of temptations. There's a good deal of talk in "Oslo, August 31" about the way youthful promise and boundless freedom has a way of phasing into domestic routines. Anders isn't sure what to make of his friends' situations; his own gives him enough to work through. Trier, somewhat akin to the style of the Dardenne brothers ("The Kid with a Bike"), has the assurance and tact of an observant documentary filmmaker. Yet as strikingly as any film I know, "Oslo, August 31" shows you what it's like to be an addict and fighting for equilibrium, all the time, without screw-tightening "Lost Weekend" melodrama.
The beauty of the picture, which Trier set in late August because of the late-summer "emotional melancholy," as he calls it, lies in its empathy. There's a shrewd voiceover monologue from Anders at one point, musing about his parents, his childhood, his past. "They respected my privacy," he says. "Maybe too much. They taught me religion is a weakness. I don't know if I agree. They never taught me to cook or build a relationship — but they seemed happy. They never told me how friendship dissolves...unless you're (really) strangers, friends in name only."
No MPAA rating (some language and drug use)
Running time: 1:36; in Norwegian with English subtitles.
Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun