Life can be full of little coincidences. Running into someone you know at the supermarket, finding a job through a chance encounter or getting something you really need as a gift. These kind of small coincidences happen all the time but when they happen as often as they do in And Breathe Normally something starts to feel disingenuous. Despite that, this Icelandic film pushes itself to places rarely seen in films of this size.
And Breathe Normally tells the story of Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a struggling mother trying to raise her son Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson). When she gets a new job as a border security officer she inadvertently changes the life of illegal immigrant Adja (Babetida Sadjo) after stopping her from boarding her plane to Canada. While Adja is forced to stay in Iceland, she and Lára find common ground and the community they have needed in each other.
I feel like I speak quite often about films that embrace minimalism and yet again I’m doing it. You would be forgiven thinking that I love this sub-genre of movies based on my constant reference to it but ultimately minimalism is a mixed bag. Say too much and you come across as preachy and say too little, inhumane. It is a fine line you must walk to pull it off and most films don’t, floundering in the empty spaces they fail to fill. For the most part though, Isold Uggadottir’s directorial debut thrives in the silence.
Managing to convey feeling through the stark imagery and relentless silence that permeate through Lára, Adja and Eldar’s existence, Uggadottir’s direction is precise with each shot highlighting the limited possibilities that surround these characters. The emptiness of the Icelandic suburbs only emphasise the fact that these three are on their own, nobody is going to save them, they have to help themselves. The vast difference between the Iceland seen here and the one of beauty seen in Hollywood films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Tree of Life only instils the idea that we don’t know anything about both this country or our character’s lives. Sound, in much the same way, pushes us into their mindset too. The music by Gísli Galdur reinforces this idea of isolation through her quiet and often unnoticeable score, one that never overpowers but fortifies Uggadottir’s tale.
It is hard not to talk about the film without discussing how family and its effects on us penetrate every recess of the films soul but Eldar’s presence here acts more as a divining rod, to find the more specific ideas within, to point us towards this shared concept of motherhood between the two women. If anything, Eldar acts as a plot device more than a character and although there is more than enough going on in the film for this to go unnoticed, it damages this threesome by making it seem disingenuous.
Eldar pushes them to be better than they are but their struggles are what make the film captivating, his pointed dialogue cuts deep into them but feels forced to viewers. Despite this, the idea of motherhood, illegal immigration and addiction flavour the film and seeing it on this small and intimate level, both in terms of the size of Iceland and the limited scope of these two women makes it all the more important and meaningful.
The film borders on poetic and truly heart wrenching but could use a little push but something must be said of going for organic storytelling over emotional manipulation. Uggadottir lets the chips land where they will instead of moving them around like chess pieces on a board which gives proceedings a naturalistic feel to them.
In the end though, this is smartly developed storytelling that stumbles as some of the emptiness of the piece seeps into its bones. Parts of the film feel like missed opportunities for greatness. The idea that something is missing, not only from our characters lives, but also from the film itself are hard to ignore. There is a lot to admire here and it leaves you thinking long after the credits roll but some of those thoughts are devoted to what should have been done, not what was.