Directed by the Danish filmmaker Bille August, "Twist and Shout" begins as a routine coming-of-age story, but then, unexpectedly, turns a corner and becomes something else -- a fresh, delicately observed drama about the snares and entanglements of youth. The film, which features Adam Tonsberg as Bjorn, a lanky, Beatles-mad drummer, and Lars Simonsen as Erik, his somber-faced pal, isn't just a John Hughes-style examination of prom-night travails; it has real weight. And the point it makes -- that the rabbit punches dealt out to kids are just as wearying as they are to adults -- doesn't dampen its spirit.
"Twist and Shout" is a buoyant, moody work -- a chamber piece about teens and teen love. Set in 1963, just as British rock 'n' roll, especially the Beatles, was everywhere, the movie draws a parallel between the adolescent exuberance -- and relative innocence -- of the period and the corresponding moment of sunny high spirits in the lives of its characters. It's the early '60s seen as a kind of collective pop-adolescence.
But August doesn't present teen life simply as a rock 'n' roll lark. Bjorn and Erik are opposites: Bjorn is a good-natured kid with storky arms -- they look about three inches too long -- and a bright, open face. It's a pure, angelic face -- the face of a boy whose mind has never been darkened by a troubling thought -- and when he dances or plays the drums with his rag-tag band, the pleasure he feels shines right through, unclouded.
On the other hand, Erik has a dour, haunted look, and his thoughts are turned inward, as if all his attention were focused on some shameful secret. Erik has never experienced the child's grace period of carefree indulgence that Bjorn enjoys. Because of his fragile, possibly crazy mother, who almost never leaves her room and whose existence is hidden from outsiders, he has always had to carry an adult's burden of responsibility. On nights when other kids stay out late, blowing off steam, Erik has to leave early to tend his mom so that his dad, a stern-faced disciplinarian with secrets of his own, can speed off to his weekly "meeting." He's had no time to simply be young. Even as a schoolboy, he's an old man.
August builds his movie on the contrast between the two boys. But he doesn't see them one-dimensionally. One Friday night, while the boys and their friends are at the local club listening to music, Bjorn sees Anna (Camilla Soeberg), a plushy young beauty with a fall of brunette curls, and is immediately smitten. Anna is a sort of dream vision for Bjorn -- she resembles a plumper, sturdier Amy Irving -- and August presents her as a slightly idealized figure, the way Bjorn might see her later in life, in his mind's eye, as the embodiment of love's youthful first blossoming.
In the love scenes between Anna and Bjorn -- like the one in which the girl introduces her resistant young boyfriend to the pleasure of Bach -- August shows a real skill for capturing the effervescent, once-in-a-lifetime feelings of revelation and emergence that come flooding in at that age. But he's on equally sure ground when Anna becomes pregnant and things between them turn sour. The scenes in which the lovers deal with their problem are surprisingly moving; the situation is a staple of teen love stories, but August has given it a real kick -- it leaves you holding your gut.
August's work becomes even more concentrated when he focuses on the melancholy Erik. Again, we've seen these circumstances before -- in its father-son conflicts, the film's a bit like Arthur Miller in Danish -- but there's a potent, suffocating darkness in these scenes. Erik's torment is real and not easy to shake. Once when his father calls him into his dimly lit study and places on the desk in front of him the brilliant red beret that a girl from school left at the house, all the crazy irrationality in the relationships between parents and children seems to come into his eyes. (That beret, which belongs to Kirsten (Ulrikke Juul Bondo), whom he pines for, has an emblematic quality, too.) And you feel for him because his feelings may mirror the way you felt facing similar impossible situations with your own parents.
The movie's strength lies in the way August is able to give dimension and complexity to the lives of his young characters. He gets marvelously unaffected performances out of his cast of young actors, particularly Simonsen. (Only Soeberg seems a bit too self-possessed for her age.) And, later in the film, after Bjorn's taken a few knocks and had some of his naive affability worn away, Tonsberg's portrayal deepens, too.
Throughout the film, August is unsentimental about his characters -- he doesn't see their youth as a state of hypersensitivity and blessedness, the way John Hughes does -- and he can portray teen problems without turning them into moralistic, after-school-special lessons. The script, which August wrote along with Bjarne Reuter, seems to spring from real experience. There's a strength almost in the familiarity of the movie's terrain. There's a thrill of recognition in it. And it reminds us more of our own lives than of other movies.
Twist and Shout, at the Biograph, is unrated but deals with mature subject matter and contains some brief scenes of nudity