Jill (Ylva Bjorkaas Thedin) has to learn how to behave like an adult from a very young age. She cares for her alcoholic and emotionally unstable mother Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) and younger brother Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås). Astrid is still young and good-looking, despite the black circles around her eyes and the dishevelled hair revealing her dysfunctional lifestyle and personality. She’s an artist, and her paintings populate nearly every corner of the cluttered dwelling somewhere in suburban Oslo. She’s extremely crotchety and volatile, and anger outbursts are part of their routine.
One day, Astrid is invited for a job interview at the local art gallery. Could she turn her life around and rise from the ashes like the mythical bird in the film title? Jill buys her a white blouse for the occasion in order to maximise her changes of landing the new post. The white garment is a peace token, but Astrid is hardly interested in reconciliation. Her reaction is disheartening, quickly veering from affection and perplexity into gratuitous aggression. Parallel to the job interview, Jill is also expecting her estranged father Nils (Sverrir Gudnason) to visit in a couple of days in order to celebrate her 15th birthday. Astrid is jealous and bitter, telling her daughter that her former partner will simply ignore the occasion.
Then tragedy strikes. Jill is left grappling with a devastating event, but decides to conceal the fact from everyone in order to carry on with her birthday celebrations as planned. Nils does show up, but he too has a very dirty secret in store that he won’t share until the very end of the film. Jill has contend with both failed motherhood and fatherhood, plus a vulnerable young brother.
The young actress Bjorkass Thedin is rather impressive. She embodies Scandinavian stoicism and determination. She combines innocence with a subtle joi-de-vivre at the face of adversity, and she has a very unorthodox way of dealing external pressures.
All in all, this is an effective drama with elements of kitchen sink realism and coming-of-age tale. There are also a few subtle horror devices, however they never come full circle. It’s a riveting movie which will keep you guessing what happens next, and how long Jill will manage to keep her skeletons in the closet (or rather monsters in the cellar, in one of those communal basement sheds common in many European countries yet virtually non-existent in the UK). Yet this is not one of those punch-in-the-face, memorable movies that will stay with you for a long time.
Phoenix is in cinemas across the UK on Friday, September 13th.