TIFF Review: 'Phoenix'

Phoenix (Føniks)
(Norway/Sweden, 86 min.)
Written and directed by Camilla Strøm Henriksen
Starring: Yiva Thedia Bjørkaas, Maria Bonnevie, Sverrir Gudnason, Casper Falck-Løvås
Programme: Discovery (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
A phoenix is a symbol of renewal and resilience. The mythical bird rises from ashes to be born again, and its flame-lit image suggests light after darkness. There is little to lightness to be found in Camilla Strøm Henriksen’s feature directorial debut Phoenix, though, but after nearly an hour and a half of sombre melancholy, one can only leave the film with a sense of hope for its young protagonist.

Jill (Yiva Thedia Bjørkaas) is days away from her 14th birthday. Her mother Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) doesn’t seem to notice, since alcoholism and mental illness consume her. Phoenix witnesses the devastating effects that these two illnesses can have on a child as Jill’s home is a dark manifestation of Astrid’s depression. Astrid’s erratic and unpredictable behaviour puts too high a burden on Jill as she takes care of her younger brother Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås). Jill’s birthday jitters take a backseat to Astrid’s new wave of euphoria when a job opportunity lends promises of renewal. The young girl suffers quietly as she sacrifices her happiness to assist her mother’s recovery.

Tragedy strikes the family unexpectedly, though, but Jill does what she always does: she carries on. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a girl to enjoy her 14th birthday, so Jill pretends that all is right in the family when her father (Sverrir Gudnason) comes to take her and Bo and for b-day dinner.

Writer/director Camilla Strøm Henriksen creates a sobering portrait of mental illness and addiction as this intimate character study examines the impact that depression and alcoholism have on the family. Neither of Jill’s parents has much luck beating the bottle, and the film sees two children stripped of their youth as the adults in their lives struggle to balance their responsibilities for their children and for their own well-being. Phoenix finds striking contrasts in the mise-en-scène of the two family environments as Astrid’s home is a sombre and dimly lit cave littered with traces of her ups and downs. When Nils takes the kids into his place, Phoenix offers a brightly lit abode with buoyantly white furnishings and clean, calming orderliness. Stepping into his apartment feels like coming up for air.

Phoenix could use more levity as Henriksen explores the dark crevasses of the family. The film is relentlessly bleak. It’s distressing to see two good kids in such hell. Bjørkaas’s impressive performance gives audiences a reason to hold out hope, though, as Jill tries to insert a little bit of happiness into an awful situation, even if it’s obviously a kind of forced escapism. She’s a resilient figure, ready to spread her wings after surviving a lifetime of pain before she’s even 14.

Phoenix screens:
-Friday, Sept. 7 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:15 PM
-Sunday, Sept. 9 at TIFF Lightbox at 9:00 AM
-Saturday, Sept. 15 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 12:30 PM