Underdog (Ronnie Sandahl, 2014)
Underdog screens on Saturday, October 11 and Monday, October 13. Director Ronnie Sandahl is scheduled to attend both screenings. More information can be found at the Chicago International Film Festival's website here. This is a capsule review. A full review will be published upon the film's United States theatrical release.
As part of the Chicago International Film Festival’s World Cinema Spotlight, films from the five Nordic countries are highlighted. One of the jewels of this programming, and simply one of the best films of the year, is Ronnie Sandahl’s debut feature Underdog.
Sandahl begins with a Dardenne-esque opening with a young Swedish woman named Dino (Bianca Kronlöf) answering a doctor’s questions. She’s detached from the whole exchange, finding the questions especially probing - she ends up having to leave with a cast on her arm. The how and why aren’t particularly important, though details emerge that are suggestive to her background. Regardless, the injury now prohibits her from taking on her usual temp work. Living in a hostel room with other fellow Swedes in Norway, the social and political climate are not to her advantage. Compounded by the fact that her roommates are taking note of her limited contributions, it’s clear that Dino is in a tight spot. Through a stroke of luck, Dino accepts a babysitting gig from one of the bosses that she usually temped for, with their newfound friendship opening Dino to a wealth of opportunities.
Sandahl pits Dino’s poverty-stricken concerns against those of her employer Steffen (Henrik Rafaelsen). Steffen, a former tennis player of modest success, takes care of his two daughters while attempting to maintain a struggling restaurant. With a wife who has recently left him, he’s left to his own devices, making his pleas toward Dino seem especially suspect - is he genuine with the woman or is he merely using his upwardly mobile position to exert authority? It’s one of the film’s many loaded questions, where concerns of social, political, and economic forces weigh down on the viewer.
But on a more primal level, what makes Underdog so arresting is Bianca Kronlöf’s incredible lead performance. A purely raw and uncompromising performance, Kronlöf summons on Émilie Dequenne’s in the Dardennes’ Rosetta. Like Dequenne, Kronlöf resists the materials penchant for melodrama, asserting herself in a much more organic way. While Sandahl may incorporate too many plot threads (the drama associated with one of Steffen’s daughter’s is an unfortunate misstep compromises the momentum of the picture) and an over-reliance on non-diagetic music, it’s Kronlöf who remains steadfast in maintaining the intrinsic humanity in both her character and the overarching plot.