Sweden is more than idyllic red cottages and affordable housing in flat packages. Today it is also a country with a big youth unemployment problem. It is so massive, in fact, that hundreds of thousands of young Swedes see no option other than to move across the border to Norway. They hope to find work serving food, sweeping litter off the pavements and cleaning toilets, if necessary. Underdog, the debut feature of writer and director Ronnie Sandahl, is a gritty, dour story of longing and power set against the backdrop of a new Scandinavian reality.
23-year-old Dino (Bianca Kronlöf) dreams of a different life, a better life. Like an abundance of Swedes her age, she has fled the mass unemployment of her home country in search of a more worthwhile existence in nouveau riche Oslo. But she has reached a dead end. In a share house, Dino finds herself stuck in a destructive loop of temporary jobs, financial difficulties and hard partying. A broken arm unexpectedly leads to a position as a housekeeper for a sweet young girl (and her teenage sister Ida – Mona Kristiansen) in a Norwegian middle class home. It is there that she is hit upon by the girls’ middle-aged father Steffen (Henrik Rafaelsen), whose wife is away on business for an extended period. He claims his marriage is on the rocks and she does little to resist his advances. All the while, roaring in the background, is a brutal class-driven society. Sandahl has long carried with him the idea of the tough, independent character of Dino. He wanted to create a persona more like the women he knows and less like those seen in most films. Sandahl long since tired of the male gaze dominating cinema.
Underdog focuses upon the power balance between men and women, the two central players, employers and employees, and the middle-class and the working class, not to forget the juxtaposition of Sweden and Norway. I’m here to tell you the picture presented isn’t pretty. Hardly readily accessible, Underdog is a slow burn of a film, which takes a while to get into and appreciate. As that description would suggest, not everyone will.
Dino is hardly someone you would term readily likeable and yet she comes to control her own destiny in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible when she first staggers into frame. It turns out that she is far more competent than she at first appears to be. Just goes to show, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. She undoubtedly grows through her experiences. This is about her journey, warts and all. As far as her employer cum lover is concerned, the big man, the strong man becomes the subjugated, the weak.
Playing as part of the Scandanian Film Festival, Underdog scores a 6½ to 7 out of 10.
Director: Ronnie Sandahl
Cast: Bianca Kronlöf, Mona Kristiansen and Henrik Rafaelsen
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television