A powerful feature debut from Norwegian writer-director Camilla Strøm Henriksen, Phoenix is a touching portrait of a family coping with the effects of mental illness. Looking after her younger brother, Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås), and mentally unstable mother (Maria Bonnevie), teenager Jill (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin in a breakout performance) is thrown into turmoil on the eve of her 14th birthday when her mother disappears after failing to attend an important job interview. But when she discovers the unsettling truth, Jill decides to hide it from her brother and visiting father (Sverrir Gudnason) in a bid to hold her family together.
With her dazzling cast, Henriksen beautifully captures the turbulent and fragile family dynamics that make up the core of the film. Unfortunately, the overall impact of the finale is hindered by pacing issues, caused by a huge detour taken during the second act.
Opening with a densely atmospheric introduction to Jill and her family living in their small Oslo apartment, Phoenix instantly pulls audiences into the fractured family environment as we see how the children have learned to live with their mother’s condition and how her volatile behaviour has affected them. This feeling of unease is manifested further through claustrophobic framing of the cluttered apartment, which is frequently blanketed in thick shadows, shading the family drama scenario with a touch of horror.
After the unsettling turning point that closes the first act, however, we’re soon taken away from the eerie apartment to the lavish hotel suite of the children’s musician father, subsequently displacing viewers from the chilling intensity of the opening and main narrative thread. The purpose of this overly long middle section is intended to further flesh-out the familial relationships and, to a smaller extend, Jill’s own mental health problems. This, too, is handled extraordinarily well, especially thanks to an uplifting musical score; however, it doesn’t give the closing act enough time to properly achieve what it sets out to, ending the feature on a poignant shot that doesn’t feel entirely earned in the moment.
A fantastic but flawed film, Phoenix’s superfluous performances, especially by newcomer Thedin, bring Henriksen’s vision of a broken family to life to striking effect through mixing drama with horror elements. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to maintain the momentum created throughout the first act, consequently closing on a fitting but noticeably hollow ending.
Phoenix is released in select cinemas on 13th September 2019.
Watch the trailer for Phoenix here: