Danish director Niels Arden Oplev is best known to audiences as the man behind the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – an international box office success even before an American adaptation was fast tracked into production. As you’d expect from a man with a hit film in his back pocket, he left Scandinavia behind for Hollywood. The only problem was the films he directed didn’t have a fraction of the same cultural impact, and were both critical and commercial flops.
One of the biggest signs that Oplev’s films have struggled to find an audience after the behemoth of Dragon Tattoo is that the charming Danish film he directed in-between his US efforts has flown so far under the radar, its international release is a full four years after it initially opened in its home country. Speed Walking (Kapgang) is an unusual coming of age story; all the tropes we expect are present, but the specific cultural and period details give it a distinct edge. Oplev’s recreation of a bygone era and examination of the different ways people process grief is striking. There’s an emotional honesty that shines throughout, largely because it doesn’t try to be “universal” in the way so many coming of age movies bend over backwards in their attempts to be.
Set in rural Denmark in the mid seventies, Speed Walking (Kapgang) follows Martin (Villads Bøye), a reserved 14 year old who is also the star member of his school’s speed walking team. One day following practice, he gets home to discover that his mother has instantly passed away after a quick, painful battle with cancer, and that his father and older brother are already reacting to this news with a devastation that he hasn’t fully processed yet. This unfortunate news also comes mere weeks before his confirmation ceremony, and coincides with an increased awareness of his sexual confusion, in particular relating to his classmate Hans (Anders W. Berthelsen).
It’s often said by directors that the hardest period pieces to make are ones set in the recent past, but Oplev has managed to vividly recreate the minutiae of rural life in the seventies. From the embarrassing fashion choices (high waisted jeans are all the rage here) to the cultural specificity of the first generation coming of age following Denmark’s legalisation of pornography, the details are all highly specific and unlikely to resonate with many viewers. Even the sport practiced by the children looks ridiculous, but the film never strives to play any of its odder period details as kitsch, even if our modern cultural lens can’t view them as anything but.
This is part of the reason why it stands out as such a distinct coming of age tale; there are no concessions to modern sensibilities, playing all of its weirder, more distinct cultural elements completely straight. Looking past the recreation of an earlier era, there’s a frankness to the messiness of grief; Martin’s brother takes to wearing his mum’s clothes to cry, while his father’s breakdown leads to him having depressing pity sex that makes him a pariah of the community so shortly after his wife has passed. Martin’s own response to his mother’s death leads to him sexually experimenting with a classmate.
Unusually for an LGBT period film, the film never discloses his true sexuality (he’s happily dating a female schoolfriend throughout), nor are his secrets ever brought out in the open. Oplev wants us to see his crisis of sexual identity as being of a piece with his emotional confusion after his mum has died, contrasting his careful exploration with the self destructive path his father seems to be taken. It would be far more conventional, and overbearingly melodramatic, were he to suffer becoming shunned by the community if his secrets were revealed, and mercifully, this trope is avoided altogether.
Speed Walking (Kapgang) does have some missteps along the way, but it’s still a coming of age film worth seeking out. Teenage years are defined by a search to define your true identity, and there is no shortage of films about this – when coupled with a story about the messiness of grief, Oplev’s film becomes far more original than it appears on the outside.