Somewhere between a patient character portrait and a family melodrama, Silja Hauksdóttir‘s Agnes Joy is a clean but confused little film about the struggles of growing up and getting old. Set among the picturesque backdrop of a small Icelandic town (not far from Reykjavík), Agnes Joy is principally concerned with a mother-daughter conflict – think Lady Bird if Greta Gerwig decided to devote equal screentime to both Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan’s characters. The mother is Rannveig (Katla Þorgeirsdóttir), a woman somewhere in her late forties or early fifties struggling to balance her work life with a defiant 19-year-old daughter, a stubborn aging mother, and a husband who always seems to be home but never emotionally available.
The titular Agnes (Donna Cruz) is the daughter, still living at home and going to school but on the edge of dropping out to take online classes and work a low-paying job. She spends most of her free time hanging out with her friend Skari (Kristinn Óli Haraldsson) at the pool and drinking (much to the annoyance of her mother). The straw that threatens to break her family’s back is their new neighbor Hreinn (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a modestly famous, middle-aged television actor that the entire family immediately seem to take a liking to. Both Agnes and her mother are sexually attracted to him, and begin not-so-subtle efforts to try to court him.
The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than that, and ultimately that grounded simplicity is simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and failing. It’s a neat, three-act script, shot well, and with pretty effective performances all around. And yet, it never feels more than a surface-level examination of any of its characters at any time. The best films that explore an adolescent coming of age or the confusion of mid-life crisis dive deep into their characters’ points of views, warts and all. Because Hauksdóttir chooses to explore both the mother and daughter’s points of view equally, she unfortunately forgoes much of the connection we as the audience can feel towards either.
The result is a camera that never feels like an emotional projection of either character’s headspace, only a passive, omniscient observer. We see what both characters are going through – Rannveig’s sexual, professional, and personal dissatisfaction; Agnes’ rebellious desire to break free of her mother’s controlling grasp – but we never feel it or even completely understand it. One of the film’s subplots involves Agnes training to be a stripper, but it’s not clear why her sexual defiance manifests itself this way, or why her close friend Skari (who comes with her to the “practice” and scolds her for other poor decisions) doesn’t try to talk her out of this questionable choice. A scene like this should, in theory, help to provide a more comprehensive understanding of who this character is and why she thinks this way (without judgement, of course). And yet, it just comes across as flat, a stale part of a film that often feels like it’s merely going through the motions.
Regardless of the film’s failure to properly pierce a barrier of convincing empathy, the imagery on display throughout is tremendously easy on the eyes. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that has visited or even just seen a picture of Iceland, but Hauksdóttir goes a step further and provides a convincing sense of authenticity to the film’s location throughout. In the end, Agnes Joy is an altogether comfortable – if not especially daring – viewing experience. It’s far too safe and surface-level to make much of a lasting impression, but it’s difficult to be frustrated at such a quaint film that goes down so easily.