The human psyche is a wonderful thing to observe. And that’s exactly what happens in De Ofrivilliga, a Swedish movie by Robin Östlund, released globally as Involuntary (Happy Sweden). The movie exists of a couple of stories which are unconnected but share a similar theme. All the characters are affected, willingly or unwillingly, by peer pressure. An older man insists on being in charge of a fireworks display, but when things go wrong, he’s hit in the eye. Claiming it’s only a superficial wound, he demands the party must go on. Then there’s the tale of two young girls, who re-enact pin-up poses in their bedroom (thanks to the camera in their webcam), dance sexily at a slumber party (mimicking the scantily clad women in rap videos), harass an older man in the tram and end up totally wasted in the park. The third tale is set on a long-distance bus. An actress has taken this bus (it’s unsure whether she does so to save some time or because of money problems), but it’ll take some time before she’ll be home. At one of the stops the bus driver notices the curtain rod in the toilet has been torn off and he refuses to drive any further as long as the culprit doesn’t confess (s)he is the guilty person. The fourth story takes us to a weekend out with some lads. When one of them tries to have oral sex with another friend by way of a prank, the fellated friend doesn’t like the joke and calls his girlfriend. The fifth story features a elementary school teacher. Her first scene is pivotal as it features an experiment in peer pressure (the class has to contradict the choices of a volunteer and observe whether this makes the volunteering girl question her choices). But this scene isn’t why we’re observing this teacher. One day, after class, she notices a colleague slap an obnoxious boy quite hard in the face. The mother complains that her son came home from school with a bleeding ear, but the teachers merely observe how irritating the boy is and the teacher with the loose hands insists nothing has happened. The teacher now faces a dilemma: remaining silent or telling the headmaster who hit the boy, even though this last option may turn her into a social pariah.
The five stories are interwoven and the snippets are separated by a black screen for a couple of seconds. I’m not exactly sure if this was the best way to tell these stories, even if it’s a manner that is very much in fashion these days. Apparently Östlund made his film out of a couple of shorts he’d already made. What is good about this form of cutting is that you don’t need to tell the entire story: you can cut out an essential scene and then move to another story, which enables you to delete all the establishment and filler scenes.
Ironically enough, the story that really tackles peer pressure pleased me least: despite the lads’ weekend being a prolonged version of a dare game this story didn’t have the body some of the others had. The bus story managed to combine two problems: on the one hand there’s the person who damaged the curtain rod and the question whether this person dares face public humiliation, but on the other hand there’s also the story of the bus driver, whose threat not to continue the ride if the culprit doesn’t confess may bite him in the ass: he may be blown the incident way out of proportion, but it also means he can’t crawl behind the wheel again if he doesn’t want to lose his face (and authority).
Involuntary (Happy Sweden) shows its nature in the title. Part of it shows the shortcomings of the human race, the bracketed part is highly ironic. De Ofrivilliga is a social drama but there’s plenty to laugh at, even if it’s not always out loud. This film, made by mostly unprofessional actors (with the odd exception), is 100 minutes of human behaviour and it questions our society and times, without offering advice (thus avoiding becoming too heavy) or pointing the moral finger in the faces of viewer or characters. Thus becoming one of the more worthwhile films of the year. If you fancy a long look into the human mirror.