Every year, a group of talented children’s football teams assemble on the Westman Islands, off the Icelandic coast. There they play out a tournament in the shadow of a looming volcano. When 10-year-old Jón comes along with his team the Falcons, he expects some difficult football games – but finds something much more troubling.
The Falcons is a slickly produced and emotionally effective children’s drama from Icelandic director Baldur Björn Arnarsson. Its international potential may be limited somewhat – a subtitled film for kids can be a tough sell – but it brings a level of emotional complexity and maturity to appeal to the upper pre-teen audience that it may just work as a child’s first introduction to foreign cinema. The film makes excellent use of its island setting, showing off beautifully rugged geography and stark, haunting volcanos, and the pace is brisk and to-the-point.
The film’s multiple football games are charmingly staged like professional league broadcasts, with an anonymous and over-excited commentator relaying the games while on-screen info-graphics show off each team’s scores in a familiar fashion. Jón and his team-mates are well differentiated, so that while the viewer may not remember every character’s name they will tell each of them apart in terms of looks and behaviour. They are a broadly appealing cast, with solid work undertaken and a surprisingly effective amount of humour. This is the sort of set-up and treatment that can entertain an adult audience almost as effectively as a youthful one.
It is, however, worth considering the film’s narrative shift very carefully. The initial set-up is familiar but well-played one: Jón is a nervous and under-confident player, and that becomes exploited by local bully Ívar (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson). One can see the how the story is almost certainly going to progress, with Jón slowly building his confidence until he engages Ívar head-on during a triumphant climax. This is not the case, and exploring this film further requires detailing more of the plot that one would usually discuss in this kind of a review. Essentially, here be spoilers for the next paragraph only.
At about the 40-minute mark Jón and a small group of his friends discover that Ívar is being physically abused by his alcoholic father. The film pivots on this point, since it subverts expectations and throws a narrative hand grenade into what had been a relatively light-weight story. The subsequent handling of the issue is dealt with in a dramatic but troublesome fashion. The children immediately attempt to warn the police, only to find the local police officer is Ívar’s uncle. It is a superb complication dramatically, but it also leads to the film effectively telling its young audience that if they report abuse to a policeman they may not be believed. This sort of treatment matters, and while it by no means ruins the film it does complicate it somewhat. A similar issue occurs near the film’s conclusion, when Ívar excuses his father’s violence because he is ‘sick’ and still Ívar’s father.
The Falcons is a broadly enjoyable and engaging children’s drama, and if you have children of an appropriate age and maturity it is a worthy and valuable opportunity to broaden their horizons beyond whatever franchises are filling your local multiplex. It is quality entertainment, but also warrants a serious conversation between parents and children on the way home.
The Falcons is playing at the Children’s International Film Festival (24 May – 10 June 2019) in Sydney and Melbourne. Check their website for details.