A mother abducts her own children in Charter, a riveting watch from writer-director Amanda Kernell (Sami Blood). Norwegian actress Ane Dahl Torp puts in a powerhouse turn as Alice, the desperate, impetuous divorcée who decides to take her daughter and son to Tenerife amid a bitter custody battle. The courts seem set to favor their father Mattias (Sverrir Gudnason), with whom they are currently living in Sweden. Alice grabs them out of school and on a plane to the Canary Islands, where they try to enjoy a holiday of sorts before the police can close in.
While there is plenty of tension in the basic set up to Sweden’s submission for the International Feature Oscar category, intrigue is added by the mysteries of Alice’s character. She’s a fascinating person to decode: unpredictable, playful, principled about certain things and not about others. Her driving force is her love for her children, yet she refuses to stay in an unhappy marriage for their sake — a decision that’s been met with evident disapproval by everyone in the small town they hail from.
There’s little chance that her husband would have elicited the same reaction, and this explores the double standards of a society that judges mothers harshly for wanting to have a life. “You have a brain like a four year old,” says Mattias at one point, and it’s not the only time there’s a hint of gendered emotional abuse. Alice also suspects he has been physically violent with their children. And yet, credit to Kernell for not demonizing Mattias: he is a rounded character who — like Alice — makes good choices as well as bad ones. There are no clear winners in this fight; no easy answers, and it’s thought-provoking to chew on that over the course of Charter, whose pace gives us time to think.
That Kernell achieves this within the context of a gripping thriller is impressive, and she also finds time for moving scenes of parent-child bonding. One of the most memorable is set in a karaoke bar, where Alice drags Elina (Tintin Poggats Sarri) and Vincent (Troy Lundkvist). Taking to the mic to sing Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love,” Alice beckons her children up onto the stage. Still confused and conflicted about the “holiday,” they initially resist, but gradually soften and join her. Alice’s relief and joy is palpable, and the uplifting scene marks a turning point in her relationship with her kids.
Both young actors put in terrific turns, with Poggats Sarri note-perfect as a shy, troubled teen who refuses to talk to her mother about her eating disorder, but who still has to be the responsible one in their relationship. Every nuance of their interactions is involving, making this an emotive and bittersweet watch as well as an impactful thriller and a strong Oscar entry.