TIFF 2023 Review: “Not a Word” Finds a Symphony in a Family’s Discord

There’s a time in “Not a Word” in which it’s hard to tell who’s more sullen, the 13-year-old Lars (Jona Levin Nicolai), who you might expect at his age not to want to engage with much of anybody, or his mother Nina (Maren Eggert), who has tired of trying. The distance between them is shrewdly conveyed from the very first frame of Hanna Slak’s well-attuned drama, with Nina asking what her son wants for breakfast not to his face, but to the drone that he’s flying into the living room of their flat shortly before school. He isn’t coming out for one reason and she isn’t coming into his room for other, toying at the piano as she prepares to conduct an orchestra in ten days hence, an all-consuming occupation that she’s well-aware is taking her attention away from Lars, though she can only suggest a quick fix of making a run to the bakery when she sees an attempt at making toast for himself ends in being burnt to a crisp.

The ingenious stylistic conceit of “Not a Word” is that the symphony going on in her head – at first a work product, but subsequently giving shape to her relationship with Lars when the two are hardly in harmony with one another – starts overwhelming the screen when there’s little other communication, inviting audiences into the deep, rich compositions of “Saint Omer” cinematographer Clare Mathon and the sumptuous concertos that Nina herself can get lost in as she nears a point of no return with her son. There is plenty of gorgeous scenery to take in when Lars asks to go to Lacmaria, their seaside summer home that Nina is loathe to visit in the middle of winter and an excursion she can’t afford so close to her concert, but there’s little else to appease Lars, who has been sent home from school with a concussion that Nina has reason to suspect was self-inflicted and her attempts to engage Lars’ father at the hospital where he’s treated reveals he is even more oblivious to his son’s needs than his mother.

Slak isn’t too keen on judging her characters, but making them all a bit self-possessed leads to crackling confrontations, sometimes between one another and sometimes simply within themselves. Eggert, who made a meal of a scientist conflicted about her feelings towards a robot designed for her pleasure in “I’m Your Man,” is every bit as compelling here as Nina, not one to feel guilt about putting her career first or dwell on the past when her passion clearly comes from when she’s most in the moment, yet having doubts creep in about how best to handle Lars, particularly when there’s been trouble at school he’s been unwilling to talk to her about after the death of a classmate. As shy and withdrawn as he is, Nicolai plays him with a steely reserve, both tortured and stubborn, making one wonder what’s going to give when in this particular respect, he actually takes after his mother. Even with just the raw materials, “Not One Word” would make for a captivating drama, but in arousing all the senses, it becomes a full-body experience, making the inability for Nina and Lars to feel completely unrelated in spite of their genes feel even eerier.

“Not a Word” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 13th at 6:15 pm at the Scotiabank 10 and September 15th at 12:45 pm at Scotiabank 9.

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