Simon & the Oaks was nominated for 13 Swedish Oscars, because it’s that kind of film. Making a pitstop in theaters before putting high schoolers to sleep in history class, this sprawling war saga views history—in this case, WWII and after—from the limited perspective of two families. But though it attempts to tell the familiar through the personal, it couldn’t be more generic.
Musty, fussy and self-consciously “acclaimed,” Oaks tells of young Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter), who has forsaken friends to spend his days sitting in trees and reading books. “Why isn’t he like other kids?” growls his father, who tries to teach him how to fight and chop wood. Simon eventually finds a pal in Isak (Karl Martin Erisksson), a Jew who has the misfortune of being in Sweden during the rise of Hitler. Before this turns into a pale Au Revoir Les Enfants cover, the tale jerkily jumps to 1945, with Simon now played by Stellan Skarsgård’s son Bill and a bit of a petulant brat. Upon learning that the couple that raised him are in fact not his biological parents, Simon turns on them and starts on a quest to find those who abandoned him. Isak, meanwhile, gets to have kinky sex and not much else. Lucky guy.
Director Lisa Ohlin does history writ large: Pre-war Sweden is filled with mean kids who boast about getting rid of the Jews, while the first appearance of Nazis is done in slo-mo, just in case we weren’t aware they were evil. Ohlin fares no better when not obviously covering history. Simon’s love for art and history yields tedious battles with his macho foster father, who might have lightened up had he realized he was a screenwriterly stereotype. Art appreciation has rarely been this cartoonishly played since Ken Russell’s tongue-in-cheek set pieces in his Tchaikovsky biopic-blunder The Music Lovers: When Simon hears music, Ohlin cuts to dissolve-heavy montages like pharmaceutical ads, with shots of trees and birds and raindrops. Giggling may be bad form, but at least it will keep the theater awake.