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by Jay Seaver

"Death. Metal."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Metalhead" doesn't exactly sneak up on an audience - it's clear from the start that writer/director Ragnar Bragason has some pretty good ideas for his story about grief and mourning, especially when he trains his camera on the parents of the title character. And yet, is still never quite what the viewer might expect, especially if he or she comes in expecting a simple story of a young woman out of sync with her small town (although that's in there and also done well).

Nine years ago (in 1983), Icelandic farmers Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) sent their daughter Hera to fetch her older brother Baldur for dinner, only to witness him slipping and falling into a still-running thresher. Hera responded by taking possession of Baldur's heavy-metal record collection and immersing herself in that. Now a young woman, Hera (Thorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörd) wait for the bus out of town every morning but never actually gets on - which is more than can be said for her still shell-shocked parents - and her devotion to this music along with her generally hostile demeanor has the conservative farming community alarmed, though the new priest (Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson) may be more understanding than she expects.

After the horrific opening, there's not always that much for Hera to actually do, but Bragason keeps her just busy enough for things to crank along. In this town of Hof, she's the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes, but by this point all the big clashes seem to be over, and the focus is on how static a situation it is: Hera is pointedly not leaving, and is continuing to orbit her lifelong friend Knutur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) if only because they're seemingly the only young people around. Her drunken acting out is entirely predictable by this point, while Karl and Droplaug are in a similar state of paralysis. It's such an utterly effective look at what it's like to be unable to move past grief or to be stuck in a town that seemingly has nothing for you but your family that one might not notice just how close things have come to a breaking point.

And once that point comes, the last act is something special. Things start to change for Karl and Droplaug while Helga crashes in a way that finds her questioning everything she is just as a group from Norway who like her music shows up. It's a surprisingly complex interaction that actually make forgiveness feel kind of oppressive and finds a different angle on a person emerging from post-traumatic darkness. It also frees the movie up to be funny in a way that the previous hour of one lone headbanger in a quiet farming town might have been predicted to be but wasn't, sneaking the culture clashes that might have been expected earlier in and having one character's little smile translate into a big one for the audience.

The cast as a whole is pretty good, but Thorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörd (also sometimes credited as Thora Bjorg Helga) is expected to carry the film as Hera, and she's excellent. As much as the audience might expect her to scream a lot of the time, she's often just as stoic in her way as the rest of the town, her sarcastic abrasiveness close to the surface but only really emerging once or twice. She shows the quiet satisfaction of making loud music, and makes the scenes of Hera trying to fit in fascinating - they're easy to read as her spirit being crushed but she's also a part of her that wants to belong. She's intriguing enough to watch that it's easy to dismiss what Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir are doing as her parents as standard, but they are doing it really well.

Locations are often called characters in movies, and this town - small, isolated, and with the connections facilitated by the internet a decade or so in the future - certainly seems to trap Hera, even when not presenting stark images like a red church against a slate-gray sky. Music also has a role to play, of course, and I expect the metalheads in the audience will appreciate the soundtrack full of songs that the folks on-screen often take a moment to appreciate.

I'm not sure that "Metalhead" will emerge as a particular favorite, but it's surprisingly ingratiating when one might expect screaming. It's better than the movie I expected, a small charmer that should impress even those of us whose taste in music doesn't overlap Hera's much at all.

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originally posted: 09/19/14 07:48:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Music & Movies Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Music & Movies Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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