Sparrows is a bleak, lean episode in the life of teenager Ari, who is uprooted from friends and familiar surroundings to live with his father and paternal grandmother six years after divorce split their family. Ari’s mother is relocating from Reykjavik to Africa and she’s decided her new location isn’t suitable for children. Instead of travelling with his mother and her new husband, Ari will be sent back to the place of his birth. It’s not a move he welcomes.
What is there to do in this tiny town trapped between the mountains and the lake? The hometown, deep in Iceland’s Westfjörds, seems like the land that time forgot. It holds nothing of any promise for Ari. He joins his father at work in the fish factory – a job for the summer, before school starts – and tries to fit in with the local peer group.
For most of the film very little happens, and it happens at a glacial pace. In a series of gentle, carefully composed sequences Ari’s new world is presented. These scenes of daily living reveal much about Ari’s father’s relationships and the struggles he’s faced since the end of his marriage. The scenery is spectacular, almost overwhelmingly majestic, and this brings an ominous, stifling energy to what unfolds.
Ari is adrift. He’s angry with his mother for moving on without him, and resentful of the father whose life holds little more than drunken partying. Ingvar Eggert Sigurđsson, as Gunnar, Ari’s alcoholic father, delivers an authentic portrayal of a man unable to take control of his own life. Gunnar has good intentions. He tries to rebuild the fractured father-son bond but it’s a challenge for him to bridge the vast cultural chasm separating him from his child.
Young neighbour Lara (Rakel Björk Björnsdóttir) appears pleased to see her childhood friend back home again but she, too, has moved on in the time they’ve been apart. Their eventual reunion comes with shocking consequences for both Lara and Ari, resulting in closing scenes which bring more questions than answers.
Kjartan Sveinsson’s score adds a gossamer-thin veil of beauty which only amplifies the emptiness at the heart of this confronting coming-of-age film. The adults, with just a few exceptions, are either indifferent to the children or exploitative. It makes for unsettling viewing. Atli Oskar Fjalarsson is appealing and compelling as Ari – a perfect study of uncertainty and suppressed emotions – but despite the superb performances from the leads and supporting cast members there’s something unsatisfying about Sparrows. Director Rúnar Rúnarsson has created a muted, absorbing portrait of village life. What’s missing is hope.
Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Rating out of 10: 7