Published February 3, 2017
Consider this dilemma: You’re thirteen. You’re offered a starring role in a movie. But, you have to spend much of the film in your underwear being emotionally vulnerable, and you have to kiss another boy. “I would never have done it myself,” says Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson. “I would have been like, ‘Fuck no!’” Yet as the writer-director of ‘Hjartasteinn’ (“Heartstone”, in English), he’s asked his young actors to do all that, and more.
‘Hjartasteinn’, which is now playing daily in Reykjavík with English subtitles, is about two adolescents riding an uncommonly vertiginous hormonal roller-coaster in an Icelandic fishing village. Late-bloomer Þór (Baldur Einarsson) waits to shower until the rest of his friends are in the pool, endures teasing from his older sisters, and stews as they fight with their single mother at the breakfast table about her dating habits. In the endless, shapeless days of an Icelandic summer, he hangs out with his best friend Kristján (Blær Hinriksson), kicking the windows out of derelict cars or just walking around. Kristján is tall and blonde, slender and broad-shouldered—the girls plainly dig him, including Þór’s crush. But his own anguish seems deeper than Þór’s angst, and there’s an edge of romantic longing in his just-kidding roughhousing with Þór.
Guðmundur grew up Reykjavík and Þórshöfn, watching escapist action films like ‘The Karate Kid’, and became serious about film as an art school student after being “blown away” by Wong Kar-wai’s ‘Fallen Angels’ during a period of directionlessness. He started out making shorts, including Cannes prizewinner ‘Hvalfjörður’, before graduating to features, shooting ‘Hjartasteinn’ from a semi-autobiographical script he’d been living with for a decade.
Though ‘Hjartasteinn’ won the Queer Lion award for the best LGBT-themed film at the Venice Film Festival, and feels like a coming-of-age coming-out tale, it’s not told primarily through its gay character. Partly, Guðmundur explains, that’s because he was writing about his own experience of growing up, while watching friends struggle with their sexuality. He wanted the film to be about friendship and small-town life, too, he explains: “I’ve seen so many arthouse coming-of-age films that are super-heavy, that I don’t think teenagers are able to relate to. I wanted the film to be fun, loving, and serious.”
Guðmundur honors the individuality of his each of his performers—we get to know their names and faces, and empathise with their personalities, all over the town. At two hours and ten minutes, ‘Hjartasteinn’ isn’t aggressively long, but it is, for a film featuring unknown actors enacting intimate dramas in a language that’s foreign to almost every moviegoer in the world. Guðmunder and his team knew the film would have been more attractive to overseas distributors at ninety minutes or less. But everyone agreed that the shorter versions, focused narrowly on Þór and Kristján, felt pared-down and monochromatic.
The film was shot mostly in Borgarfjörður Eystri, in East Iceland, with a brief, tense detour to the cliffs at Dyrhóaey, represented as just a short, bumpy ride away. The film is not set anywhere in particular, and the time period is somewhat free-floating, though consistent with Guðmundur’s own adolescence, there are no cellphones in the film, and barely any internet. He thinks of the conflicts in ‘Hjartasteinn’ as personal, not social. He’s seen Iceland become far more accepting of queer people over the past decades, he says, but ultimately sees the real struggle as private. He muses on how much easier it would really be, today, for a teenage boy to come out to an all-male friend group in one of Reykjavík’s suburbs. He remembers two friends who didn’t come out until the third year of art school, much to his surprise.
Guðmundur’s seen the conflicts of ‘Hjartasteinn’ play out in the lives of the young actors tasked with enacting them—those kids who made the choice he never would have, back in a different time. He’s seen his actors go back and forth between being uptight and open about the film’s themes, whether they’re with their school friends, or on-set with other artists. Ultimately, Guðmundur credits the ten-month rehearsal process, and the kids’ own open minds, with getting them to the point where they were comfortable overcoming their shyness and giving the raw, compelling performances he speaks of with evident pride.
“We trained them as a sport group,” Guðmundur says of his young cast, including several athletes. “We kept them all together, it was always about the team spirit, no one was allowed to say that anyone was boring… They realized rehearsal is like practice and shooting is the game. Sports kids, they know it’s not always fun… They didn’t have the responsibility of making a great performance as long as they would just try what I asked, and never say ‘I can’t do that.’ I think we managed to take a lot of the responsibility away from them and make it more enjoyable so they could be relaxed.”
“Relaxed” is not the first word that comes to mind, watching scenes unfold in long takes between boys and girls engaged in the agonizing two-step of flirtation and experimentation, but it makes sense; Guðmundur describes blocking of scenes in kinetic terms, as a “dance between the cameraman and the kids.” That the young actors were free to express themselves was key for a film about youthful self-discovery.
That’s the perspective Guðmundur tried to stay within whilst filming scenes featuring minors that are as sexual as they are sweet. Teenagers, of course, do not think of themselves as innocents, and neither did he. “I have one rule when I’m working with kids,” Guðmundur explains, “and it’s try not to put my adult mind into what I’m allowed to do. For example the scenes of Þór masturbating, I think: what did I do when I was this age, I did this, it was normal for me, so it’s normal for us to show it.”
After ‘Hjartasteinn’, Guðmundur is finding that vividly youthful perspective hard to shake. “I actually had decided to grow up, do a film about grown-ups, but then this story has been haunting my dreams,” he says of the feature he’s working on now. “It’s very different from this one, much more in line with ‘Gummo’ and ‘Kids’—the brutal behavior of teenagers. It’s a boys’ group dynamic. They’re a little older… so I’m growing up. Slowly.”
Heartstone is showing with English subtitles in cinemas around Reykjavík.