When a rifle is handed to the actress Silje Salmonsen early in Arild Ostin Ommundsen’s redemptive crime drama It’s Only Make Believe, the effect is jarring, as though somebody dropped a Darth Vader helmet on a Smurf or handed a machete to Bambi.
Up to that point, Ommundsen’s movie has strained to established Salmonsen’s Jenny as a diaphanous, golden-curled petal of a thing, a girl as unlikely to commit murder – even accidentally, as it happens – as she is to be found here in a grow-op greenhouse stealing a brick of hash with the equally blond boyfriend (Fredrik Hana) she’s just told will be the father of her unborn child.
But here she is and must be, for It’s Only Make Believe is the story of Jenny’s struggle to overcome her past once she’s released from prison (with a big hug from a strangely avuncular guard) and attempts to win back her daughter (who seems constantly to be dancing in slow motion at sunset) and normal life.
That Salomonsen is filmmaker Ommundsen’s wife was something I didn’t learn until afterward but suspected from the get-go. It’s evident in the attention lavished on the young woman’s ice-blue eyes, creamy skin and striking visual alignment with the natural: Sun, wind, grass and skies are her element, and she seems as anachronistic in the world of drug deals gone wrong and fatal gunshot wounds as a fairy princess slumming in a crack den.
There might have been something to this juxtaposition if Ommundsen were a more diabolical filmmaker: He could have played Salomonsen’s porcelain exterior against a granite interior, or probed the way evil – driven by desperation and maternal instinct – can insinuate its way even into the sunniest of gardens. But the Jenny we get at the beginning – innocent, pure and motivated by romantic love and the stirring of life within – is the only Jenny the film can imagine, which results in a so-called crime movie that’s curiously and unproductively resilient to any sense of real danger. When the bad guys show up they seem less threatening than downright rude and short on manners: Can’t they see what a decent, pretty, hard-working single mom they’re messing with? Will somebody show them the way back to the other movie they’ve apparently strayed from? Hasn’t anybody told them it’s only make believe?