Romance in a New Land
Tapping into the American immigrant experience, writer/director Ali Selim’s Sweet Land emerges as a beautiful and poignant film. It tells the story of a mail-order bride who finds herself in a strange and rather unwelcoming Minnesota Norwegian-American community back in 1920. Co-starring Elizabeth Reaser as the bewildered newcomer and Tom Guinee as the Norwegian farmer who sent for her, this splendid independent movie impressed me with its charming simplicity and convincing sense of place.
When Inge (Reaser) arrives at her new home, she can’t speak English -- except to say “I could eat a horse” whenever asked if she’s hungry. But she faces even more serious problems. She’s German, and prejudice against people of that nationality still runs rampant as a result of World War I. Because obtaining the proper papers seems almost impossible, Inge’s marriage to Olaf (Guinee) must wait. Instead of moving into Olaf’s comfortable house, she’s forced to stay with the VERY large family of his extroverted friend Frandzen (the versatile Alan Cumming, who also produced Sweet Land). Even the local pastor (John Heard) has trouble accepting Inge. One of his reasons? He thinks she uses too many beans in her coffee! Still, 1920 was a year of hard economic times, so such excesses were probably taboo then.
Watching Inge struggle to communicate with her shy husband-to-be becomes quite painful here, and at first I thought subtitles should have been added to help viewers understand these scenes better. However, this approach served to involve me more and more with each sequence between Inge and Olaf, and I ended up actually feeling their frustration. Filmmaker Selim commented on this aspect of the movie in an interview for NPR. “There is an element in the story of language, lack of verbal language, and I thought that would be an interesting challenge in a film, most of which are driven by dialogue,” he explained.
Fortunately, Selim chose two actors who knew how to interpret their characters well. Reaser and Guinee deliver wonderful performances as Sweet Land's romantic leads. Reaser endows Inge with so much determination that I wanted to shout, “You go, girl!” And Guinee captures the true essence of a hard-working introverted farmer trying to deal with his churning emotions. When these two finally get together, it’s definitely something to cheer about.
I’m intrigued by movies that take us back in time and offer a vicarious experience involving a particular place as it existed then. Sweet Land, Selim’s first feature film, accomplishes this with style and grace. Adapted from a short story by Will Weaver, Selim’s movie gave me the same “being there” feeling I had while watching Places in the Heart -- and that’s high praise indeed.
(Released by Forward Entertainment and rated "PG" for brief partial nudity and mild language. For more information, visit the film’s official website.)
Read Betty Jo Tucker's interview with Alan Cumming by clicking here.