This achingly beautiful Scandinavian Film Festival highlight explores the boundaries of friendship and the harm wrought by homophobia.
Stephen A. Russell

14 Jul 2017 - 2:25 PM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2017 - 2:25 PM

Our teenage years are troublesome for most of us, but for young boys in particular - often struggling with unrealistic notions of masculinity that conflict with the emotional freedom of childhood - that leap can be traumatic. Once you factor in broaching sexuality in an isolated place with little space for difference, the drama of tumultuous hormones and fledgling independence is exacerbated tenfold.

Filmmaker Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson experienced some of that turbulence growing up in a small Icelandic town, “literally as far away from Reykjavik as you can get”. In a country with a high rate of suicide amongst teenage boys, he lost two friends. “I’m still dealing with being emotionally open in my relationship because that was considered weak, to be emotional when I was a kid,” he says. “I’m telling my boy and making sure he knows it’s fine to be emotional. At least I hope I’m doing that. I’m trying.”

This inner conflict is at the core of Heartstone (Hjartasteinn), a slow-burn, coming-of-age movie set against a dramatic backdrop of coastal Icelandic majesty that has a wild way of making humanity seem very small indeed. Screening in this years’ Scandinavian Film Festival, it stars Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson as two preteen boys, Thor and Kristján, awaiting the oncoming storm of puberty impatiently.  

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While Kristján is adapting faster and acts as something of a bodyguard for the much smaller Thor (no Hemsworth muscles here), their lifelong friendship is drifting into complicated territory, with their first fumbling, explorative steps blurring the lines between boisterous and fooling around. As Thor pursues a sweetheart girl, Kristján pays along, unconvincingly taking an interest in her best friend, but it’s clear who he’d rather be with. These emerging feelings are further complicated by the home truths of his homophobic parents and the surprisingly switched on gaydar of the local bullies.

Guðmundsson, who is straight, drew on a lot of what he witnessed in his own friends circle. “In Iceland when I was growing up, it was a very homophobic country, openly so, and for me as a teenaged boy it was one of my biggest fears, that I would discover that I would be gay, but at the same time we would be experimenting. We were kind of confused about our sexuality. It’s a normal thing, but it’s a very scary when you’re in a country which doesn’t allow it.”

Though there has ben a good deal of progress in Iceland, Guðmundsson acknowledges of course it’s still an issue, particularly in more remote communities. Whilst the films are quite different in tone, there are shades of similarity with Irish filmmaker John Butler’s Handsome Devil, in its focus on friendship and the oft-rocky road to confidence in personal identity.  Guðmundsson was, in fact, worried about whether the film would be embraced by the queer community. He breathed a sigh of hearty relief when it won the Queer Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where the judges praised Heartstone for its, “exquisite touch in showing the coming of age of two young friends and analysing the acceptance of homosexual feelings and passions. For the strong and valid representation of the inner conflict that separates and then re-unites the two main characters, set against a natural environment as breathtaking as it can be hard and cruel.”

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For Guðmundsson, it is very much a film about the love shared between two young boys becoming men, whether or not that love becomes sexual, and the way their story resolves in the traumatic final act is sublime.

As the Venice judges note, the location is a perfect match for their interior struggles, complete with craggy cliffs and murky waters. “The setting brings a lot to the story, because nature is both amazingly beautiful and very dangerous, very rough, and that kind of brings it back to the human spirit and the kids, the way they treat each other and the animals around them,” Guðmundsson says.

Nature seemed only too happy to play along, with some quite breathtaking panoramas. “I’m used to filming in Iceland where you can never really count on the weather,” Guðmundsson laughs, “You’re always just kind of hoping for the best but, at the same time, the worst of weather is more beautiful. The light becomes matte. The kids are freezing, you’re bringing them hot layers, but it looks great at the same time. My cinematographer and me are happy, but everyone else is like, ‘aaarrrr.’”

Einarsson and Hinriksson were 12 and 13 when they were cast and neither were professional actors. They underwent eight months’ training to get to know each other intimately and prepare for the roles and the rigours of an independent film set. “They were growing from innocent kids into teenagers, then they lost their innocence,” Guðmundsson chuckles. “I think the process helped them, kind of. It was as much about them facing their fears and opening up to everything they thought could be weird or difficult. The main theme of the film is self-acceptance. All of the characters are dealing with that, and then it’s about how much friendship and family can help.”

Heartstone is screening as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival. Book tickets here.