Review: ‘Stockholm, Pennsylvania’ can’t survive the dreaded suspension of disbelief

PARK CITY – Nikole Beckwith's new drama, “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” which premiered Friday at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, asks a number of questions surrounding the provocative subject matter of child abductees. How would a young woman who has spent 17 of her 23 years captive in a basement adjust to living in the real world? And, more controversially, is this a better “life” than what she was experiencing before?

For Lea (Saoirse Ronan), returning to a family she has no memory of isn't just jarring, it's an alien experience. Beckwith begins by reintroducing Lea to her parents Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) and Glen (David Warshofsky), who are, understandably, overjoyed to see their only daughter after so many years. In an extended sequence set in the family living room, we immediately realize Lea – born Leanne – has no real understanding of what has happened to her, the outside world or how she should act in the company of these two relative “strangers.” She insists her birthday is the day her abductor, Ben (Jason Isaacs), chose for her and the reference that her abductee name is the same as a particular “Star Wars” princess goes completely over her head.

As the film goes on, Beckwith, who also wrote the screenplay, continues to reinforce how little Lea knows. She doesn't understand what a toaster is. She's never seen nor worn a bra before. A trip to the supermarket is like exploring the surface of Mars. But eventually, creating such a sheltered character becomes problematic for Beckwith. Lea, as you might suspect, has a strong psychological connection to Ben and seems to resent Marcy and Glen for removing her from him life. At one point, she travels to the prison where he's incarcerated and reconnects with him.

The movie has already made a number of leaps in logic up to this point, but it seems like an impossible feat for Lea to pull off considering she's never been on a bus (or perhaps even knows what one is) or that huge red flags would go off from the prison officials who would no doubt know the identity of a woman who has been the center of national news of this sort. In a Q&A following the screening, Beckwith said she saw Lea as very intelligent, but how could she make such jumps with little knowledge of the outside world? Keep in mind, later on we witness Lea experiencing rain falling on her face and hands for the first time (we'll assume she heard storms outside her basement “home”). That's how sheltered she's been, and yet, she made the aforementioned journey without a hitch. Things get even dicier when the movie has an abrupt tonal change that makes the proceedings feel more like a horror flick than a psychological drama.

This isn't a critic trying to be unfairly tough on a new filmmaker. These are obvious gasps of logic that stand out considering how much detail has been allotted to strategizing how Lea would evolve in this world. Beckwith wants us to consider whether the assumed best case scenario is truly the best environment for someone who has been raised in a considerably unorthodox way. Her goal is clearly to show the difficulties of recovery for an abductee who didn't want to be rescued.  

As for the performances, Ronan expertly sells Lea's stoic indifference to her new surroundings, but isn't provided enough material to make us sympathetic for her particular plight. Nixon has the difficult task of playing a mother who's euphoric joy upon the return of her long lost daughter is severely tested just days into their reunion. The Emmy and Tony Award-winner deserves some kudos, however, for not allowing her character to descend into over-the-top dramatics. Unfortunately, Beckwith's screenplay simply makes it hard to understand how Marcy could become so desperate so soon.

Isaacs plays Ben without any hint of creepiness, which will no doubt make some viewers uncomfortable. Beckwith barely hints that there could have been anything sexual between Ben and Lea, and Isaac doesn't shadow his performance to suggest anything, either. His abductor isn't necessarily a sympathetic figure, but there is almost no judgement regarding his actions.

Noteworthy: Rosalind Chao gives the film a needed breath of fresh air as Dr. Andrews, the court-appointed counselor for Lea.

Beyond the logistics of the screenplay, Beckwith makes some stylistic choices that hinder the story's cinematic opportunities. Often, Lea will daydream about her time with Ben while in the middle of a conversation with Dr. Andrews or her mother. Beckwith stages this so half the set is the contemporary scene and the other half Lea is watching is the flashback being played out in front of her. Its a very theatrical technique that makes a film which primarily takes place in one home feel even more like a play than it should.  

During the aforementioned post-premiere Q&A Beckwith also revealed that she originally conceived of “Stockholm” as a theater piece, but then changed it to a screenplay halfway through. Her original instinct may have better served the material.

Other Sundance reviews:
“Summer of Sangaile”
“The Bronze”