Blu-ray Review: Britt-Marie Was Here (2019)

63-year-old Swedish homemaker Britt-Marie (Pernilla August) lives a well-ordered life of lists, habits, and routines. Dinner is served promptly at six, baking soda is the ultimate problem solver, and everything — including the cutlery drawer — is neat, tidy, and in its right place. Uncomfortable with any sort of deviation from the norm that she's cultivated over the past forty years, in the opening voice-over of actress turned director Tuva Novotny's sophomore film — based upon Fredrik Backman's eponymous novel — Britt-Marie reveals that once a guest helped her after dinner and put her silverware away in the drawer wrong. Speaking of the incident as if it were an insult so great that they might as well have set fire to her living room rug, Britt-Marie informs us that after the cutlery debacle, that person wasn't a friend of hers anymore.

An amusing anecdote that not only summarizes our main character's state of mind at the beginning of the film but also sets its dryly acidic tone, Britt-Marie's reaction to the silverware situation perfectly foreshadows her response when she discovers that her husband Kent (Peter Haber) has been seeing someone else. Introducing herself to the female stranger in the hospital, presumably after their sexcapades caused Kent to have a heart attack, Britt-Marie shows her the door before calmly retrieving her husband's laundry, as is her custom, and then closing the door on Kent herself.

While the cutlery drawer could be salvaged as long as the perpetrator was no longer in their lives, in the case of her marriage, Britt-Marie knows that no amount of cleaning — even with baking soda — will put things back in order. Leaving her ring behind, she embarks on a new adventure when she says yes to her first real job in forty years — the only one she can get — which sends her to the small town of Borg to work as a youth soccer coach.

Not a big fan of the game, which the soccer obsessive Kent viewed as a metaphor for life, Britt-Marie soon falls back on her old habits, settling into the dirty, nearly abandoned youth center, which she cleans from top to bottom in order to put everything in its (new) right place. Unsure which story she wants to tell, Novotny fills the film — which she co-wrote alongside Anders Frithiof August and Øystein Karlsen — with several false starts as our protagonist journeys into various subplots involving friendship, mentorship, and/or romance that never quite pay off.

Introducing us to a handful of wholly original supporting characters, we meet Anders Mossling's sweet natured police officer Sven who, sweet-on Britt-Marie, brings her sweet jam to break the ice, as well as the local soccer obsessive Sami (Lancelot Ncube) whose two younger siblings he raised now play on her team. A character study turned life affirming starting over or fish-out-of-water comedy that soon becomes a romance, it's easily apparent that, unlike Britt-Marie and her utensils, the film's screenwriters don't quite know which plot goes where or what the movie they've penned should ultimately be.

Buoyed by a terrifically earnest, ego-free turn by Pernilla August, who never lets us forget that beneath the brief smiles, there is a woman of icy rigidity, August's chemistry and interplay with her co-stars holds our interest even when the well-intentioned yet underwhelming film does not. Barely developing Britt-Marie's role as a soccer coach, beyond enlisting the daughter of the former coach for help as well as her friendship with a precociously wise beyond her years young player named Vega (Stella Oyoko Bengtsson), the film feels like it's merely checking off subplots on one of Britt-Marie's handwritten lists.

Trying to be everything to everyone and never finding a safe place to land for long, like a spoon facing the wrong direction in Britt-Marie's kitchen drawer, while it's still functional, it's too distracting to look past its shortcomings for long. Overshadowing Britt-Marie at every turn with characters like Sami, Sven, Vega, and more who are far more interesting than our lead as written, because perhaps Novotny doesn't stay in one place long enough for our heroine to come to life beyond the surface level soundbytes of that opening sequence, we fail to connect to her overall plight or the goings-on.

An altogether pleasant if admittedly forgettable trifle nonetheless, though the inconsistent Britt-Marie isn't sure what kind of film it should be from one scene to the next, its affable cast does their best to keep us smiling long enough that we forget about the script that needs to be rewritten right there next to the silverware in that damn cutlery drawer.

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