(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Two boys grow up in Sweden before and after WWII comes to Europe. Isak is Jewish and Simon discovers that he is adopted and half Jewish. Director Lisa Ohlin tells us about how that affects the boys, but it also is very much about the relation of Simon to the woman he as been brought up thinking was his mother. SIMON & THE OAKS is based on the novel, a bestseller in Europe, by Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson. Though the story does not seem to go into new or even unexpected territory it is engrossing and ultimately affecting. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

I particularly like films like SOLDIER OF ORANGE, HOPE AND GLORY, or WINTER IN WARTIME or the TV series WISH ME LUCK that develop characters and then show the affect that World War II had on them individually and upon their relationships. Both the horror of the war and the prejudices fostered by the Holocaust change people in these dramas.

Growing up in neutral Sweden, specifically in Gothenburg, during the years just before and after World War II, Simon (played by Jonatan S. Wächter and later by Bill Skarsgård) is protected from the violence happening in much of Europe. But the imaginative but odd boy is lonely. His best friend is an oak tree and he likes to find pictures in clouds, behavior out of place in a family of farm stock. Simon's mother (Helen Sjöholm) is sympathetic, but his father (Stefan Gödicke) wants his son to toughen up. Simon gets to go to a forward-looking school in spite of his father's misgivings. There Simon meets Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson and later Karl Linnertorp) a Jewish boy from the same school. The other boys bully Isak for being Jewish, but Simon and Isak become fast friends and bring together the two families. Isak is the son of a prosperous bookseller Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers) who takes a liking to Simon. Ruben sees potential in the boy and is interested in helping the boy live up to his intellectual potential and want to help Simon without alienating the boy's father. Ruben had brought his family to Sweden to flee the Nazis and their sympathizers, only to face prejudice in Sweden. And Simon finds out not only is he adopted, but also that he himself is half Jewish.

One would think that the most dramatic years of this relationship would be during the war years. Director Lisa Ohlin tells the story in segments separated and flanking the war, which eliminates the need to show the actors playing the characters as boys transforming into the different actors who play them as men. Ohlin gives us a view of the forces on the two youths and then tells what happens to them as adults. The war and the Holocaust hang over the story but stay at arm's distance from the two. We see more the affect on Simon of his adoption and his actual parents. Simon, who had always been close to his stepmother, all the while thinking she was his biological mother, searches for what his new attitude should be to the woman who gave him loving care while all the while tacitly leaving him deceived.

Dan Laustsen's photography captures those all too rare days of really pleasant weather in Swedish summertime seasoning them with a touch of fantasy in showing us the lonely boy who has befriended trees and sees camels in the clouds. Liefers is particularly strong as Ruben. Unexpectedly he becomes a more central character than Isak. If anything, Isak seems to drop out of the story after a point. The story is more compelling in the prewar years. Later as the characters to keep track of proliferate it is a little troublesome to keep them all straight. Somehow the plot loses its some of its forward momentum. The story has done well in Europe, both as a novel and a film. The film comes to the US on October 12. I rate SIMON & THE OAKS A low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper