Anonymous cast helps strong ‘Elling’ draw in audience
Consider the many appealing films about people with physical or mental impairments or both.
Even a short list would have to include “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (all Oscar winners), plus “Sling Blade,” “I Am Sam” (clumsy plotting notwithstanding) and a couple of TV movies, “The Boys Next Door” and the recent “Door to Door.”
Many of them, and others too numerous to mention, are quite strong not just because they depict triumph over adversity but because of the way they in which they draw us into fascinating milieus where lives are lived quite differently. The more matter-of-fact the portrayal, the more clearly we can grasp the experience.
The Norwegian “Elling” belongs high on that list.
It started as a best-selling novel, “Brothers in Blood” by Ingvar Ambjornsen, that was adapted for the stage by Axel Hellstenius, who, in turn, did the screen adaptation for director Petter Naess.
The picture became a box-office phenomenon in all Scandinavian countries. Of the 51 movies submitted for the foreign-language film Oscar, “Elling” was among the five to make the final slate of nominees.
Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), who is 40, tells us up front he always has been a mama’s boy and an only child. When his mother dies, he is found cowering in a closet, deprived of his only support system.
Compulsive-obsessive, anxious and agoraphobic, he is sent to a psychiatric treatment center and assigned to a room with the hulking galoot Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), whom Elling always addresses by his full name, like Charlie Brown.
To Elling, Kjell Bjarne is an orangutan who is obsessed with sex and with losing his virginity.
They build a mutual dependence and after two years are released and given a state-subsidized apartment in Oslo.
Elling is content to stay inside, cooking and cleaning. He dreads the outside world and sends Kjell Bjarne to do the marketing.
Not that Kjell Bjarne is perfect. He rarely bathes or changes his underwear. But he can play Parcheesi and has mechanical ability.
Social worker Frank Asli (Jorgen Langhelle) has difficulty getting Elling to leave the flat – besides, he can’t use public restrooms – and answer or speak on the phone.
At one point, Elling ignores the ringing phone at length. When finally it quiets he explains contentedly, “There. It was a wrong number anyway.”
He walks in short, brisk steps.
In this gentle comedy of neuroses, both men are nurturers, generally considerate of the other, and striving for stabilization in their lives.
Inevitably, Kjell Bjarne will meet a woman – in this case a boozing, pregnant neighbor named Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), whose encroaching favor with the lunk will excite Elling’s insecurity and fear of abandonment.
Not so obviously, Elling will fancy himself a poet – The Sauerkraut Poet, if you please – and will lunge toward his own socialization when he meets an indulgent poet named Alfons (Per Christensen).
There isn’t a single reference to psychological conditions within the film nor any indication of medications. “Elling” is about growth from within and the power of friendship and generosity.
Not knowing the actors seems to help in this case. Ellefsen in particular seems so fully at home as Elling and is so funny when he pushes himself to explore the intimidating world beyond his toes that his characterization is likely to become one of Scandinavia’s most memorable.
So what if he creates a scene over pork and gravy in a cafe?
Just getting him there with his taste buds intact is the kind of progress that turns “Elling” into an 84-minute smile.
Director: Petter Naess
Stars: Per Christian Ellefsen, Sven Nordin, Jorgen Langhelle
MPAA Rating: R, for language and some sexual content
Where: Harris, Downtown