Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s latest film Disco is a heady exploration of the danger of Christian cults and what it means to lose yourself. Teenage Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) is a champion dancer, a singer and one of the faces of her stepfather Per’s congregation Freedom. All is not right in her household. Per is controlling, her mother harbors a dark secret about the abuse Mirjam suffered years ago by her biological father and Mirjam is now collapsing during her competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on Mirjam to be perfect from her performances, competitions, church life and as a model young woman. After attempting suicide, she looks for answers by way of other Christian outlets. First she spends time with her uncle, a televangelist who feigns curing cancer and homosexuality through elaborate prayers. Then she seeks an even more radical alternative by attending a youth camp run by a family friend (Andrea Bræin Hovig). In searching for answers Mirjam loses her personal freedom and becomes a shell of her former self. Will she find her voice again?
Disco offers an interesting conceit but the story never quite gels. It felt aimless and without purpose. There are many tightly framed shots which at first I found off-putting but they really transport the audience into Mirjam’s world. We’re up, close and personal with her and this creates a sort of bond between viewer and protagonist. Josefine Frida Pettersen is an internet celebrity and the star of the hit TV show Skam. She’s absolutely stunning and its clear that the camera loves her. Petterson’s performance is reserved and while we don’t necessarily tap into her character’s personal pain we do feel empathy for her situation.
While I didn’t grow up in a Christian cult I was raised in a very religious and oppressive environment and much of what was shown I found highly triggering. It’s important to show Mirjam’s trauma and the lengths these groups will go to strip their followers of their identities in order to gain their obedience. Some of the final scenes are quite shocking. The ending will frustrate many viewers. It’s a risky move on the filmmakers part but realistic within the scope of the story.
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.
Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) has just celebrated the success of her latest dance production but something isn’t right. She’s been in remission from lung cancer since last Christmas. But now she’s suffering from debilitating headaches and her eyesight has gotten so bad she can no longer read. When she visits the doctor and gets an MRI, she’s given terrible news. Her cancer is back in the form of a large tumor in her brain. It’s treatable but incurable and she will soon die of the disease.
At first she keeps this a secret with her distant and workaholic husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård). The news draws them together while at the same time the problems they’ve endured throughout their 20 year union come bubbling up to the surface. Anja struggles with how to tell her blended family of children, her dad and her friends. We follow her and Tomas as Anja puts into place her plans for her final treatments and her final days with those she loves most. Through it all she must hold on to a glimmer of hope that everything will be okay.
Directed by Maria Sødahl and based on a true story, Hope is a heart-wrenching film that will leave you emotionally devastated. We’re seated right next to Anja on her roller coaster ride of emotions. We feel her fear, her pain and her paranoia. End-of-life situations are complicated and messy. I love that Sødahl’s film doesn’t tie up everything neatly into a big bow. Instead she allows the viewer to see the bad and the good and every shade in between. Hovig is more than capable to take us on her character’s journey and delivers a breathtaking performance. Skarsgård’s solemn delivery pairs beautifully with Hovig’s. It’s through his tender approach and his support of Anja that we have some emotional foundation.
The story is told over Christmas and New Year’s when the holidays delay access to specialists and puts pressure on Anja to make the season a happy one for her children. I thought the time frame to be an ingenious touch which elevated the stakes in Anja’s story. Hope is a film you may want to avoid and I almost did myself. But I’m so glad I gave over 2 hours of my life so a beautiful film could break my heart.
Hope had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.
Update: Hope will have a virtual theatrical release on April 16th, 2021.