August showcases all her talents in her performance of a fascinating, indomitable woman who was the J.K. Rowling of her time.
A fascinating origin tale, Becoming Astrid chronicles the formative years of children’s literature author Astrid Lindgren, best known for Pippi Longstocking. The movie focuses on her late teens to mid-20s, when the young author, born Astrid Ericsson, accumulated fodder for future creative work. The written word only appears here in its most utilitarian aspects. You’ll find no grand moments of inspiration where the artist regurgitates a bestseller from her muse fully-formed. Co-writer/director Pernille Fischer Christensen primarily explores the considerable drama of her subject’s early years.
Even before getting into a measure of adult trouble, young Astrid (Alba August) was an unconventional youth. With her unruly red hair braided in pigtails, the teenager couldn’t be contained by norms. She would perform a wild, solo Charleston at a formal dance and instigate potato fights with her siblings on the farm. Aware that his daughter lacks the temperament for farm life, her father Samuel (Magnus Krepper) gets her an internship at The Vimmerby Times, the local newspaper run by one Reinhold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen).
Astrid’s interview for the position consists of a word association game that establishes an immediate chemistry between the much older publisher and the teenage girl. Blomberg fosters her talent, eventually handing her writing assignments, but the creep of their attraction taints their interactions. Blomberg is more a forlorn romantic figure than sexual aggressor, but his self-proclaimed status as a free thinker feels more window dressing for a midlife crisis than earned philosophy.
When Astrid becomes pregnant with his child, Blomberg promises to marry her, but there is one complication: He is still married to his previous wife. Adultery was a crime in 1920s Sweden, and Blomberg fears going to jail once the rumors of his young employee’s condition spread around their small town. The outgoing Astrid is surrounded by loyal friends, but is forced to manage a very real ordeal while Blomberg is imbued with the desperation of paranoid conspiracy. When he is finally convicted of adultery, the verdict nearly breaks Astrid.
The affair leads to an even more crucial conflict, a maternal triangle formed by Astrid, her mother Hanna (Maria Bonnevie) and Marie (Trine Dyrholm), a Danish woman who fostered Astrid’s young son Lasse. Hanna and Marie offer different examples of motherhood. Hanna is pious, austere and surprisingly ruthless when it comes to her daughter’s illegitimate child while Marie emits a stubborn warmth despite her trying role in the lives of desperate children and their mothers. Few return to Denmark to visit their children let alone claim them from her. The fact that Astrid does is just one example of her extraordinary character. When the dream of a free Blomberg finally comes to fruition, Astrid finds she has outgrown it and must make her own way, a process that proves messy and painful.
Lindgren’s characters are known for their wit and strength, but the movie thankfully does without a conventional biopic tendency to pinpoint exact moments of artistic inspiration. The author simply appears born with wit to spare. Navigating life in a patriarchy requires all the superhuman strength a woman can muster, and it often pummels her, but she rises again, battered but never broken. August showcases all her talents in her performance of a fascinating, indomitable woman who was the J.K. Rowling of her time. We never get to see Lindgren’s happy endings of success and new love, but enough threads are laid before us to know that they are coming. Yet Becoming Astrid is inventive and satisfying enough that it doesn’t need a sequel; the movie is sufficient enough to lay the foundation for what we know will be a life of promise fulfilled.