Guðmundur Arnar GuðmundssonIceland / Denmark129 minutes2016ColourIcelandic
The years-long friendship between two pre-teen boys in a small Icelandic village is threatened when they strike up romantic relationships with a pair of local girls, in the affecting and beautifully crafted debut feature from Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson.
In the opening sequence of Heartstone, a gang of bored preteens are loitering on a dock, trading insults and waiting for something to happen, when they're interrupted by the sudden appearance of a school of fish; ennui transforming in an instant to gleeful brutality, the boys reel in the fish and savagely beat them to death on the dock. Conjuring up memories of Fellini's I Vitelloni, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher and even the scorpion-torturing opening of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, these first moments of Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson's debut feature mark it as something exceptional, and the rest of the film more than confirms that initial impression.
In a small village in rural Iceland, Thor and Christian are best friends whose home lives are unsatisfactory, to say the least. Thor is ruthlessly mocked by his elder sisters, while his mother can't be bothered to hide her frustration at having to sacrifice her pleasure for the sake of her children. While Thor suffers from absentee parenting, Christian's drunken and abusive father is, unfortunately for him, all too present. When the two friends strike up romantic relationships with a pair of girls, the events that follow threaten to destroy the longest and most meaningful relationship either has ever had.
Evincing a real feeling for how kids relate to one another, Heartstone also offers a powerful portrait of the limits of small-town life. While Thor and Christian's relationship takes centre stage, Guðmundsson also skillfully integrates a wide range of supporting characters (from a possibly psychotic local bully to the seedy clerk at the local diner/ bar, whose crass insensitivity reaches epic levels) and casts a cold eye on the boys' parents, whose privation and boredom have left them ill-equipped to fulfill their roles as protectors and nurturers. Well-crafted and very affecting, Heartstone is the finest debut by an Icelandic director since Rúnar Rúnarsson's Volcano.