Girl, The: Frederick Edfeldt’s Feature Debut

By Jeff Farr

It is a lonely and life-changing summer for a 10-year-old girl (Blanca Engstrom) in Frederick Edfeldt’s feature debut, “The Girl.” Left to her own devices at her family home in the Swedish countryside, this girl, never named in the film, uses what at first seem limited resources to build something like a life for herself.

At the same time, it is also a summer in which the girl has her first exposure to the world of human sexuality, in her case without any parental support or guidance to help her understand what she is seeing. Nothing bad happens to her per se, but Edfeldt gradually creates a disturbing mood, in which the girl seems to be in serious danger.
The film begins with the girl more excited than anyone else in her family — her mother, father, and older brother — about their summer trip to Africa as aid workers. She sneaks off to study a map of Africa, lovingly reading the names of African locations to herself. And she is the first to start packing.
Unfortunately, her parents have not done all of their homework. At the last moment, it turns out that the girl is too young to make the trip, and her parents are so determined to save African children that they decide to leave her behind, asking her aunt to move in. The girl’s heart is broken, and she becomes difficult.
Enter her aunt Anna (Tova Magnusson-Norling), who clearly is not fit to take care of the girl, much less herself. One of the lingering mysteries of the film is the obliviousness of the girl’s parents in entrusting their child to this woman.
After the aunt has some “ups and downs” — including the hosting of a rowdy drinking party for a gang of losers at the home — the girl ingeniously engineers the aunt’s exit by surreptitiously contacting one of the aunt’s ex-boyfriends, who promptly shows up at the door to whisk her away. Herein lies a welcome paradox of the film, for the girl, from one perspective, is not just “left behind”; she also creates the conditions to isolate herself, eschewing any supervision and keeping her circumstances a secret from the community.
This is a tiny but powerful girl: she effortlessly gets rid of her aunt and also gets the upper hand over the slightly perverted father (Leif Andree) of one of her friends. When he learns her big secret, she matter-of-factly and successfully blackmails him into not telling a soul.
All summer, the girl fakes it, always telling neighbors that her aunt is away shopping. Having the house to herself and no longer having to attend those swimming lessons — which include the daunting challenge of jumping off the high board — are fun for a while, but soon the girl finds herself longing for companionship.
The top candidate is her friend Ola (Vidar Fors), a sweet boy from swimming class. Both of them are still children, so this is no big romance — but it is the start of a deep boy-girl friendship that could turn into love in the future.
Their growing connection is endangered, however, when several older girls humiliate Ola by pulling down his pants. The girl silently witnesses this assault and soon regrets her inaction, when Ola breaks off ties.
A healing takes place for the girl when Edfeldt makes a deus ex machina move toward the film’s end: a dashing young balloonist crash lands outside the house and quickly intuits the girl’s predicament in a nonjudgmental way. He tenderly helps straighten out her wildly tangled hair before taking her on a joyous flight above the countryside.
This film would never work without the right girl to play the central figure. But Edfeldt has found the perfect little person for this role in Engstrom, whose big eyes captivate us as she registers every nuance of the new world she has made for herself.
It is not the case of a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, which we have seen so many times before. This is truly a child, far from even being a teenager. But this is a child of amazing inner resources, who finds strength in her disappointment and this series of first-time experiences that must mostly be strange to her. Edfeldt’s overarching point is to remind us of children’s resilience.
A neat irony of the film is that the girl is able to manage keeping a house and living on her own all summer long but cannot overcome her fear of jumping off that high board. A balloon ride with a stranger, no problem; making that jump, forget about it. As the summer comes to a close and her family returns, we get to see if the girl can finally muster the courage to take that solo flight into the lake.
In addition to Engstrom’s completely convincing performance, the other great strength of “The Girl” is Hoyte van Hoytema’s sharp cinematography. There are many breathtaking images of the beautiful Swedish countryside, which work well with the film’s pathos: if we look closely at this bright, sunny wonderland, we find a girl lost in the woods, a Little Red Riding Hood.
Edfeldt’s one misstep is trying to up the dramatic ante near the end, when the girl and Ola are involved in a scary accident. Although Edfeldt handles this sequence with his characteristic subtlety, it is a minor betrayal of the film’s dreamlike, almost listless mood to that point.
The Girl – Blanca Engstrom
Her Father – Shanti Roney
Her Mother – Annika Hallin
Petter – Calle Lindqvist
Anna – Tova Magnusson-Norling
Gunnar – Leif Andree
Elisabeth – Ia Langhammer
Tina – Emma Wigfeldt
Gisela – Michelle Vistam
Ola – Vidar Fors
Ola’s Father – Mats Blomgren
Noe – Efrain Solis
Tio Lucido – Marino Ballon
An Olive Films release.
Produced by David Olsson.
Directed by Fredrik Edfeldt.
Screenplay by Karin Arrhenius.
Director of Photography, Hoyte van Hoytema.
Music, Dan Berridge.
Editors, Therese Elfstrom, Malin Lindstrom.
Sound Design, Per Sundstrom.
Production Designers, Lars Stromsten, Bernhard Winkler.
Running time: 100 Minutes.