SIMON AND THE OAKS – The Review
SIMON AND THE OAKS is an epic drama spanning the years 1939 to 1952, a coming-of-age story that follows a brainy Swedish boy growing up in domestic and political turmoil during World War II. It’s an engrossing film hampered by a sappy, soap-opera script which it keeps it from being as satisfying as it could be but it’s still worth seeing. Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter) lives with his working class family on the outskirts of Gothenburg but always feels out of place. He finally convinces his father to send him to a prestigious upper-class grammar school, where he meets Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), an outcast being the son of a wealthy Jewish bookseller who has fled Nazi persecution in Germany. Simon is dazzled by the books, art and music he encounters in the home of Isak’s father Ruben (Jan Josef Leifers), which makes Simon long to know more about his own family background. Isak, on the other hand, draws comfort from learning to do something with his hands, helping Simon’s dad (Stefan Godicke) make boats. When Isak faces trouble at home, he is taken in by Simon’s family and the two households slowly merge, connecting in unexpected ways as war rages around them.
SIMON AND THE OAKS, which received 13 Swedish Guldbagge nominations, (Sweden’s Oscar equivalent) and two awards, is ambitious and blatantly sentimental. It is based on a Scandinavian best-selling novel by Marianne Fredriksson and one problem with the film is that it attempts to accommodate too much of its source material, bringing in characters that appear for a scene or two and are never again heard from. The title refers to a tree house where the young Simon reads books and sees magical formations in the clouds that hover above it, but even that magical concept is discarded as the movie progresses. I think SIMON AND THE OAKS works best when it focuses on the relationship between the two boys in its first half when they are kids. When they grow up (actors Bill Skarsgård as Simon and Karl Linnertorp as Isak take over) the relationship becomes more complicated, Simon becomes less likeable, and a messy love triangle involving a young Holocaust survivor named Iza (Katharina Schüttler) enters the mix and takes up too much screen time. The Holocaust itself is always a presence throughout the film, which takes place during and after it, but that event stays mostly in the background. SIMON AND THE OAKS is solidly directed by Lisa Ohlin with meticulous period detail that feels authentic. The photography, musical score and acting, especially Helen Sjoholm as Simon’s conflicted mother, are all outstanding but the pedestrian script fails to lift SIMON AND THE OAKS to great heights.
(SPOILER ALERT – but weird coincidence: THE OTHER SON, which also opens in St. Louis at the Frontenac today, is also about a kid who finds out his parents aren’t who he thinks they are and therefore he may or may not be Jewish)
3 of 5 Stars
SIMON AND THE OAKS opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater