Chronicling a day in the life of a recovering addict as he makes his way through downtown Oslo, meeting friends and encountering new faces, "Oslo, August 31st" is astonishingly powerful, haunting and the second genuinely great Norwegian movie I have seen in as many years.
Presenting his film in a linear 24 hour fashion, director Joachim Trier elicits the sensation of a camera extremely intimate with its main character but without the static look and feel of a docudrama. Rather he skillfully crafts the film so each scene augments the last, creating a gradual, if often tense, build-up and then a release that strangely comes across as cathartic as it does awful.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Le) has been clean and sober for 10 months. He is granted a day pass from his drug rehab facility to venture into downtown Oslo for a job interview as an editorial assistant. First, he meets up with his old pal Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), married with two young children. Anders expresses his doubts about attempting to re-enter real life. Thomas scolds him - he has friends, family, and brains to back him up. He can still make it.
At the job interview everything is going well until the interviewer wonders about the considerable gap on Anders' resume. He is honest. He was an addict. It is not explicitly said so but the looks on the faces of both men make it clear that this gap will forever loom over the rest of his life.
He goes to meet his sister for a cup of coffee. She does not show up. She is worried he will slip and slide out of sobriety. She cannot bear to face him. He calls his ex-girlfriend in New York, makes semi-serious pleas of perhaps re-uniting, but she does not call him back. He attends a party Thomas had invited him to earlier in the day but Thomas does not show.
Friends? Family? Brains? One by one the film lines 'em up and knocks 'em down.
A man who reviews a movie must admit he is that man and I must admit that last summer at the age of 34, the same age as Anders, I all of a sudden begin to feel the worlds' walls close in on me in a way I both had never felt before and still cannot quite adequately express, except to say that even when I tried to shake it away it stayed. I am not as worse for wear as Anders, not even close. I have friends and family and some smattering of brains but I can identify with at least part of Anders' quandary - the frightening thought that contrary to Kevin Spacey's imparted wisdom in "American Beauty", maybe sometimes it is too late to get it back.
Anders sees a world where others have moved on or moved away and where those who are left seem less than blissful and self-medicated in their own chosen ways. Thomas explains how he and his wife glean their only pleasure from a couple of glasses of wine and a video game. And Le, in a performance mesmerizing in its restrained intensity, lets his face delicately register each piece of newfound information, as if they merely reinforce long held suspicions of the uselessness of taking it one day at a time in a society so insistent on conjuring up Five Year Plans.
Rather than spiraling straight down, however, "Oslo, August 31st" boldly offers a couple passages of defiant beauty, one involving a young woman (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal) who is almost a celestial re-invitation to the straight & narrow and another involving a piece of classical music. These moments, though, are fleeting, and that is what Anders, terribly, seems to recognize without having any idea how to cope.
Earlier at the party Anders sits on the roof with a kindly ex-girlfriend who is shrouded in a sweet sadness. She says: "I think there's something wrong with me, some defect. I don't know what. It's just....." and her words trail off into nothing.