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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Metalhead

It's not often we get to see Icelandic films, but Ragnar Bragason's unique portrait of a girl growing up metal in the 1980's is well worth the subtitles.

I was a metalhead growing up. In high school, I was into a lot of the classics: Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Megadeth were all on whatever burned CD-R was in my car at any given time. I explored a lot of the subgenres, experimenting with death metal and black metal and really getting into doom and stoner stuff, much of which survives in my iTunes library to this day. Hell, I was in a metal band myself, creating crappy recordings in my garage with my best friends. So when I saw the trailer for Bragason's Metalhead come on the screen at the Atlanta Film Festival, featuring the striking images of a girl in full black metal makeup in a snowy field full of cows and a really interesting looking tone, I was instantly intrigued.

The film has a relatively simple setup: as a child of 12, Hera and her family suffer a sudden and tragic accident that costs the life of her brother (I won't spoil the specifics here because it is so jarring it caused gasps and hands covering mouths in the theater). The event leaves an indelible imprint on Hera, and as she strums on her brother's guitar in his room full of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest posters, her life is changed forever. Cut to many years later, and although she is in her mid-twenties, she is still living with her parents. Her parents have grown apart and seem empty, and Hera is an aggravated, isolated person, unable to keep a job or make friends. Her only outlet is her love for metal music, which she not only avidly collects, but lives the lifestyle, writing her own songs and never removing her leather jacket.

There are several things that are remarkable about Metalhead, but chief among them is the revelatory performance by Thora Bjorg Helga in the lead role. She plays Hera with a brutal realism, and perfect timing, making us cringe at (but understand) her bad decisions and misplaced anger and yet giving the character a huge amount of depth and feeling. Her transformation throughout the film is truly wonderful to watch.

While the movie primarily follows Hera, we also get a lot of development of the characters of her parents Karl and Droplaug, played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir respectively. Their portrayal of a husband and wife moved to isolation, united by their frustration with their daughter is fantastic, and is made even better at their rock bottom, when they finally admit what is wrong. They play the roles with deep understanding and love, and it shows.

Metalhead takes a stark look at how grief can tear a family apart, but also at how things can change. It is refreshingly honest, but never gets bogged down in darkness. The movie combines serious drama with wonderful comedic moments in a way that precious few American movies do, and it makes for a very pleasurable viewing experience overall. Hera has a biting wit, and Bragason finds humor in her struggles trying to hold down a regular job while unable to stop herself from fighting the man, playing metal from her Walkman headphones over the PA system. Funniest of all though, are when some metalheads from the city come to find Hera, whose demo tape they worship as "the most brutal music we've ever heard." It amplifies the stark contrast between the small religious farming town and loud, heavy metal music, but the best bits are in how polite the boot and trench coat wearing boys are.

Although I would strongly argue that anyone could enjoy Metalhead, it is particularly great for...well, metalheads. Bragason clearly has a deep love that goes beyond nostalgia for classic metal, and it really comes through in the movie. Metal music is not typically about rape, murder, and devil-worshiping; usually it's about being an outsider to society, and as Hera points out, taking a hard look at the reality of life and death. The music here is not just a placeholder for teenage angst, but rather a community for those who are alienated. The soundtrack is full of great songs, and the original music that Hera creates is impressively authentic to the time and genre. Interestingly enough, there is also a unique score that is used to great effect, full of pounding orchestral drums and pulsing synth that really ratchets up the drama when an Iron Maiden song just wouldn't do the trick.

I went into the movie not really knowing what to expect. Would it be a comedy, highlighting the absurdity of a young girl in black metal makeup trying to make it as a rock star in rural Iceland? Or a drama, when she takes that obsession too far? Luckily for us, Metalhead is neither but also both, as it defies categorization in some ways. It's a surprising film whose wonderfully emotional story catches you off guard as much as the great bits of humor that crop up throughout. It takes an interesting time period and subject and applies it to an unlikely topic, but takes it very seriously, and while the film is sad and quite dramatic at times, it never crosses the line into melodrama. This is one I would highly recommend for any moviegoer, even if you've never raised your hand as devil horns!

I give it an A+.

Metalhead is currently touring festivals internationally, and will hopefully be reaching select theaters in the U.S. this year!

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