A tumultuous coming-of-age tale that indulges the darkness under the surface of a ‘perfect town’.
Synopsis: A group of 8th graders who confront the meaningless of life and leave behind the innocence of childhood.
There are two distinct worlds established at the outset of Nothing – the outward-facing, rule-observant idealistic one, full of parents who want their children to be guided in the right direction and the one beneath that image, of children left alone to fill their time, resulting in the group starting to explore their own directions and meanings in life.
Writer-director Trine Piil Christensen, adapting from Janne Teller’s novel situates herself firmly in the world occupied by the children, keenly aware of the adult’s indiscretions and relative lack of interest. The film’s inciting incident in which school boy Pierre Anthon (Harald Kaiser Hermann) has an outburst at school, declaring everything meaningless, before retreating to the safety of a nearby tree and refusing to come back down is an unusual one, seemingly purposely chosen to showcase the ineffectual parenting surrounding them. The rest of the children begin to mount a campaign to show him what they find meaningful, but Pierre Anthon’s existential crisis soon sets in motion an epidemic of nihilistic thinking amongst the group.
Much of the early parts of the film rely heavily on a voiceover from Agnes (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) who calmly intones about tragedies yet to unfold. At times, this feels like too much of a shortcut, with much of what we know about the characters delivered through that voiceover, rather than in more organic ways. This does occasionally feel clumsy, introducing snippets of exposition just before dramatic events without allowing the viewer to understand entirely. However, given that this film is largely concerned with the troubles of meaning (or lack of meaning) this does function on another level, prompting the audience to view each incident through both Agnes’ meaning and what plays out in front of them.
The sedate pacing too, imbues the film with the same impression the audience is given of the children’s lives. These are children with lots of time to spend together and they struggle to fill that time. Even those who are given parental figures with more status or involvement, like Frederik (Frederic Linde-Fleron), the head teacher’s son, are only viewed fleetingly, based on the ideas the group have about them. This, again, is assisted by the voiceover but the need for it to do quite so much of the heavy lifting in building that world sometimes bristles. This, along with a swerve into an odd direction during the third act that is not quite given the time it requires, hints at a sense that this would perhaps sit more comfortably in a much longer, episodic format.
This is, perhaps obviously, given the subject matter, an incredibly dark film, especially with so many younger performers involved. These dark moments are handled with an appropriate sense of dread and while many of the scenarios could easily stray into the exploitative (and may well overstep that line for some), there is an impressive amount of restraint employed, holding back so the moments that are fully revealed to the audience hit all the harder. The escalating trades the children begin to make in their search for meaning grow steadily darker and the young cast are all excellent at conveying their sways from innocence, to sadistic behaviour, all with a sense of insecurity at the heart of it. Maya Louise Skipper Gonzales is a standout as Sofie, taking a role that could easily become cliche and making it compelling.
While Speak No Evil may be the Danish horror that has everyone talking this year, Nothing also offers that very European darkness and unsettling themes that linger beyond the credits.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Nothing screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.