By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 20, 2011 at 2:14AM
Norwegian director Joachim Trier showed serious promise with his feature debut, "Reprise," a thoughtful coming-of-age drama about growing artist types with plenty of verve and style. His effective follow-up, "Oslo, August 31st," takes the opposite route. With its moving lead performance by "Reprise" star Anders Danielsen Lie, Trier constructs a powerful, upfront document of a recovering drug addict confronting the demons of his past.
The ill-fated protagonist, also named Anders, spends most of the movie roaming about Oslo, encountering old friends and enemies, intent on correcting his relationships with them. It's no easy task: Nobody seems willing to accept Anders' mea culpas as sincere, least of all himself. A job interview that starts out promising quickly turns sour when Anders decides to confess his past and storm out of the office. He tries to tell an old rival that he has forgiven the guy for sleeping with Anders' old girlfriend. "You're still an asshole," comes the response. Anders doesn't fight back; he just drifts away. There's an ongoing claustrophobia to the proceedings: The entire movie takes place over the course of a day that just keeps getting drearier.
Anders' efforts don't simply provide the outline for "Oslo"; nearly the entire movie is comprised of these scenes. Trier has made a sad, intimate work about the perils of evading addiction and realizing it might be too late. Although the character has fundamental differences from the aspiring novelist Lie played in "Reprise," he could easily represent a slightly older version of him (that character was in his twenties; Anders is in his early thirties). Trier's astute screenplay presents Anders as a sort of adult Holden Caulfield, still holding onto his elements of his former self but anxious to move beyond them. "I've always thought happy people must be morons," he says, but his look suggests he wishes he felt otherwise.
Trier toys with expectations with an intriguingly ambiguous style. He keeps focus on Anders but never ventures inside his head. When the character heads to a club and drunkenly meets a woman who may help him feel better about himself, it's unclear whether he actually has a shot at improving his life or merely desires a quick pick-me-up.
Trier's direct approach creates the lingering sense that "Oslo" has some missing pieces. Anders is such a great character that the thin story surrounding him just can't compete. As a result, the movie works like a short film, and although it never becomes tedious, many scenes suffer from redundancies. However, Trier manages to avoid distracting subplots or a gooey sentimental resolution. Anders begins his downward spiral as the movie begins, with an attempted suicide that fails miserably. The entirety of "Oslo" can be read as an extension of that single, exasperated moment.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Trier's last film received a fairly wide release from The Weinstein Company, but "Oslo" is too small and bleak for that kind of distributor interest. A low-figure U.S. distribution deal with VOD prospects seems like its best bet, although Anders' performance may receive enough accolades to elevate interest in the movie and his burgeoning career. Trier, meanwhile, should get enough momentum from this to try something more ambitious.
criticWIRE grade: B+