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TIFF 2013 Review: Metalhead

Thursday 12 September 2013

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Having recently interviewed both the director and lead actress of Metalhead, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what the story would be about. However, from the very first scene Ragnar Bragason’s heart-wrenching tale of grief, adolescence, and family managed to surprise me. I had the opportunity to watch the movie, called “Metalhead” in English, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and I’d go back and see it again in a heartbeat.

Dealing with grief and teenage rebellion are time honoured movie tropes, and it can be very difficult to tell stories about those concepts in a fresh and engaging manner while still holding people’s interest. It requires a particularly fine balancing act between the providing the novel while still hewing to the familiar – a balancing act that Bragason has clearly mastered in his time as a writer and director.

The plot focuses on Hera, a young girl growing up on a rural Icelandic farm with her parents and older brother, Baldur. Baldur’s tragic death threatens to tear her family apart; in particular, Hera’s development into adulthood takes a drastically different and more damaging path. The story follows her assumption of Baldur’s heavy metal lifestyle as a means for dealing with his loss, and her interaction with her family and her community through her interpretation of what heavy metal music means to her (and would have meant to Baldur).

There are plenty of tears to shed while watching this movie – I know my eyes weren’t dry when I left the theater – but the story is leavened with the natural comedy that arises within any family, and optimism and hope are threaded throughout the film. Sometimes those hopes are dashed and sometimes they aren’t, just as in our own lives, but despite the grief-stricken premise, this is in no way a depressing movie.

Bragason’s writing was matched by the acting abilities of his cast. Hera, played by Þorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörð, had to convey an incredible range of emotions with the unvarnished sincerity of youth. It’s easy to fall short of the mark when you’re trying to convey real grief and struggle, just as its easy to overshoot and overact, but Dyrfjörð is completely believable as Baldur’s heartbroken younger sister. It is impossible not to feel what Hera feels as you watch the story unfold.

Similarly, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson deliver warm, relatable performances as Hera’s equally stricken parents, bowing under the weight of their own guilt and grief.The dynamic between all three actors felt as genuine as watching a real family at play.

“Metalhead” is a powerful, evocative film that entertains and connects without ever becoming preachy or overwrought. It draws you in within moments and doesn’t let you go until the last tear is shed and the last note is played. I headed out of that theater with a lump in my throat and a warmth in my heart, and I have no doubts you’ll do the same. But don’t take my word for it – this movie is worth the watch.

Words: Tim Ellis