If you want to really feel what tension is – muscular tension, dramatic tension, visual tension, the relentless stretching of the body, the psyche, the vast windswept landscape of Iceland and maybe even an imaginary reel of film – then director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Heartstone is for you. But it comes at a cost. This film is a harrowing look into the vulnerability and frustration of our tween years, that moment in life where our bodies are in so much of a hurry to grow, we can feel the insides straining to pop out of the skin. Guðmundsson trawls in elements from this period of his own life, pulling at it like taffy, crafting an intensely tactile confection. It’s often an unbelievably riveting viewing experience, sometimes to the point of discomfort. Reliving the slow-motion-train-wreck of innocence’s final loss becomes transcendent, as the director delivers a spot-on symphony of editing and acting. Virtuoso performances are captured by a balletic motivated camera, both intermingling with each other ethereally like melody and rhythm. Long sequences, with lots of cuts, frame moments of emotions that morph seamlessly into other takes. Smiles are unbroken, winces of pain blend across camera angles, and it’s all so very frenetic. Hand-held shots pull and tug in every direction, mirroring all the physical contortions the cast goes through to pantomime with their bone and sinew the inner pain of the characters. It’s really a marvel to behold, but in its emotional and psychological honesty, it’s so very harsh. The beauty of the art is exhilarating, a remarkably worthy journey – just be ready for some deeply painful moments, lots of them in fact. You’ll feel it in your nervous system, the horror ride in childhood you scream to get off of. It’s an uncommonly brave and rewarding cinematic sojourn.
The basic story is of two friends living by the sea in a fishing village, set in the director’s native Iceland. We watch their friendship, their struggles and yearnings as they vie impatiently with their impending manhood. Our first look at them, however, sets the whole tone of the film. Leisurely loitering on a sunny day, a group of boys find an almost innocent motivation to be extraordinarily brutal. I won’t explain what happens next, but what is seen is striking. Nonchalant gestures of predation, bashing, stomping and even ripping at flesh, cameras rolling so you can see that these are real kids and some of the violence is very real. A food chain is defined starkly just in the first 3 minutes of the film. Clumsily maturing children, finding themselves too often pushed around by stronger forces, now relentlessly and cruelly perpetuate the resonance of violence and brutality, all to assert their own feeling of power. For them, it’s all happening in the unconscious – as it has with us all. The sequence is almost primitive and far too familiar. It’s exactly where the filmmaker wants you to start for a trip down a very difficult road, one that doesn’t let up very much, but is so very alive.
What comes next dramatically is not surprising. The series of frustrations, humiliations and degradations come at the audience non-stop. The brief respites in between are very reinvigorating. The true nature of friendship is rendered in every breath the two boys share. Danger is never far behind, however. The stakes are masterfully raised over and over in an organic progression of events, some unexpectedly crushing despite the audience’s acclimation. Behind all these elements is nothing short of a breathtaking execution.
This is basically a cast of children, some of whom are very young, performing to a level that should make any Oscar-winner wilt with humility. So much is this the case, viewers may be alarmed at just how open and vulnerable these young people make themselves for the film. Amazingly, this is not an exploitative film. Comparisons to Larry Clark’s infamous Kids may seem appropriate, but there’s a much higher sense of purpose in Heartstone. Those familiar with Truffaut’s Small Change may find the more familiar reverent tropes, but Guðmundsson’s vision is the superior piece. Utilizing the region’s iconic topography to additionally strain against the kids, even geological and meteorological forces seem to obey the director’s baton. And the very final shot, the final frame even, brings the tail of the film right to the head. The visual transition is caught in wild nature, like much of the film, and offers a tiny flicker of hope – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – in a grand spontaneous gesture, as far from phony as you get in cinema. Truly, this work is a grand achievement, Guðmundsson’s first feature, hopefully foreshadowing an equally brilliant career to come.