STOCKHOLM, PENNSYLVANIA screened as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For additional screen times, head here.
Stockholm, Pennsylvania surprised me in the best way possible. I went in expecting a fairly straight-forward drama and while it certainly starts off that way, by the end I would compare it to almost more of a thriller—one of those quiet ones that gets under your skin. It was entirely unsettling and chilling, particularly by way of amazing performances from Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon.
The film opens with Leanne (Ronan) being returned to her parents after having been abducted 17 years prior. She is on guard and cautious, treating her parents like the strangers they essentially are, while her parents are thisclose to hugging her to death. An attempt to bond leads them to learn that Leanne is actually Leia (after “a princess from a story,” ha) and her birthday is in March, not October (despite photographic evidence and confirmation from the woman who birthed her, ahem), thank you very much.
The story continues on this way, with Leanne–er, Leia–attempting to navigate her new world. It’s only through flashbacks and little snippets of overheard news stories in the background that the audience begins to piece together that Leia was held captive in a man’s basement and led to believe that the world outside had been destroyed. The man’s name was Ben and he was her entire life. Leia can sense that the new people in her life are anxious to have her denounce Ben and see him for the demon he is, but she can’t. (And can you blame her?)
Through all of this, Leia’s mum, Marcy (Nixon) has been trying and trying and trying (and trying) to reconnect with her daughter. It’s bad enough she can’t call her Leanne, but when Leia doesn’t seem to be interested in practicing trust falls or beading bracelets, this is where things get interesting. Without revealing too much, Leia finds herself in a familiar place: captive in what she is being told is her home. Except this time it’s her mother so that makes it different, right? Nixon was absolutely mesmerizing in this role and dove right into the complicated mess. It definitely takes an outrageous turn that some might have trouble getting behind but, listen, Marcy is the kind of mother who kept her 4-year-old daughter’s room a shrine for over 14 years. So, yeah.
Stockholm, Pennsylvania shakes up the idea of self-identity and freedom. Leia feels that she is her own person, but Marcy can’t let go of her baby, and Ben took her for himself. Leia grew up in Ben’s image and then found herself attempting to be shaped by Marcy’s image. As she struggles with realizing that much of what Ben told her was a lie (guess what, the Grand Canyon still exists!), she wonders what that means about her.
Director/screenwriter Nikole Beckwith creates a rich and layered world with her assured vision (a seriously impressive feat for a first feature). I used the word “thriller” before, but the film is subdued and thoughtful. From the muted colour palette to the mellow cinematography, it’s like we’re cautiously exploring the world with Leia. And Ronan’s performance is just wooowwww. Like, wow. This is a character that one would expect to seem damaged or weak, but Ronan carries Leia with a quiet, conflicted strength.
A line in the movie, “Is this how people love?” becomes even more bang-on after the film ends. Did Ben love Leia? Does her mother love her? And who should Leia love? Leia answers that question herself with a great little “audience gasping” twist of an ending.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.