“Oslo, August 31st” is a quietly powerful drama depicting the melancholy of a drug addict in recovery. Directed by Joachim Trier, it boasts an astonishing performance by Anders Danielsen Lie as Anders, a 34-year-old man who is two weeks shy of completing his rehabilitation program.
The film’s tone is wistful and somber, but also hopeful, as Anders temporarily leaves his rehab program to interview for a job. During the course of the day, Anders reunites with friends and meets strangers. He takes stock of his life — trying to reconcile his past, reconnect in the present, and consider his options for the future.
When Anders meets his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) for lunch, Thomas is not initially attentive to his recovery efforts. Instead, he offers his 10-months sober friend a beer. Thomas thinks Anders wants his pity, which he adamantly does not. Anders does hope to get his friend to understand his misery, suggesting he is contemplating suicide. Thomas tries to encourage Anders that he can overcome his self-destructive thoughts, but undercuts his persuasiveness by describing how mundane and disappointing his own life has become. Anders comes away feeling that “normal life” might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
A fantastic sequence that follows has Anders sitting silently despairing in a café as he eavesdrops on other patrons whose humdrum conversations fuel his cynicism about life. As Anders contemplates weightier issues, the mindless chatter crushes his spirit.
The dramatic tension in “Oslo, August 31st” comes less from Anders’ struggle to resist drinking and taking drugs and more in his reactions to people he comes across throughout the day. During a job interview with a magazine editor, he is candid, boldly admitting his addiction, which surprises the editor. Perhaps misreading the editor’s reaction, Anders abruptly leaves in a huff. He is insecure about being identified as an addict, and the moment crystallizes the difficulties he has re-adjusting to daily life.
When his sister declines an invitation to meet him, saying she is uncomfortable doing so, and an ex-girlfriend does not return multiple phone messages, Anders’ pain over having failed his family and loved ones is evident.
The regret that consumes Anders is presented eloquently. In perhaps the film’s best sequence, he delivers a moving monologue (in voice-over) describing his parents and his childhood, dwelling on the freedoms he was given and the opportunities he squandered. The moment might explain — without judgment or blame — how and why he became an addict.
The film’s intimate, almost documentary-like style of chronicling Anders’ day is affecting. The observational approach allows viewers to feel every emotional shock. As Anders is repeatedly defeated in his encounters, his hopelessness becomes unbearably palpable. It is unsurprising when, late in the film, he attends a party where he drinks alcohol, steals cash, and heads to his old dealer to buy drugs. Empathetic viewers will ache watching him act so self-destructively.
In the central role, Anders Danielsen Lie is phenomenal. Lie has a way of looking at the camera — directly and indirectly — and communicating fear, disgrace, and dissatisfaction in a single expression. Anders rarely smiles; Lie’s body language fully conveys his anguish. “Oslo, August 31st” is a remarkable portrait of an addict and his struggle, and Lie’s performance is what makes the film resonate. Viewers come to clearly understand the character and his despondency.
“Oslo, August 31st” may foreshadow its conclusion, but that hardly detracts from its potency. The film and Lie’s performance will be seared in viewer’s memories long after the lights come back up.
OLSO, AUGUST 31ST | Directed by Joachim Trier | In Norwegian with English subtitles | Strand Releasing | Opens May 25 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | City Cinemas 123 | 1001 Third Ave. at 59th St.