There’s a reason “Simon and the Oaks” runs a very long 122 minutes. Although it is an intimate coming-of-age story, it is also an epic drama deserving the necessary time to unfold. Moreover, the 2011 Swedish Holocaust film, based on the internationally bestselling novel by the late Marianne Fredriksson and opening in New York October 12 and in Los Angeles October 19, is also a thoughtful contemplation on identity. It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, but director Lisa Ohlin deftly weaves these threads together into a work whose writing, acting and cinematography are all equally captivating.
As the film begins we meet the eponymous Simon, a sensitive and intellectually inclined only child in a working class family outside Gothenburg, who feels he doesn’t quite fit in. It is 1939, and he defies his father Erik’s wishes by enrolling in a grammar school in the city catering to the children of middle class professionals. There, he meets and befriends a German-Jewish boy named Isak (who has escaped the Nazi regime with his bookseller father and mentally unstable mother), defending him from bullies’ anti-Semitic taunts.
As World War II breaks out and horrific circumstances in Isak’s home make it impossible for him to continue living there, he moves in with Simon’s family. From that point on, the two families become one. While Isak’s mother is in a sanatorium, his father Ruben regularly visits Erik, his wife Karin, and the boys, bringing with him gifts and food. Eventually, Erik and Rubin go into the shipbuilding business together.