Written By: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, based on the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochell
Setting: Oslo, Norway
Addiction is an agonizing journey, and it’s an open secret that the road to recovery can be even more painful. It tends to trigger depression, hopelessness, guilt, grief, self-pity, and anger.
A recovering addict is often overwhelmed when faced with the consequences of his substance abuse, an awareness that has been numbed by the drugs, and frustrated when he is unable to immediately win back the trust of people close to him. On top of all this, where do you go when all your friendships and hang-outs have revolved around alcohol and other drugs?
This Norwegian film manages to convey all of this, through quiet, thoughtful scenes, rich in dialogue, without becoming heavy-handed or cliched.
Oslo, August 31 shows us one day in the life of Anders (Anders Danielson Lie), who is nearing the end of his stay in an inpatient drug rehabilitation center. He is clean and sober but clearly not yet recovering.
He returns to Oslo, where he has lived all his life, for a job interview. He doesn’t hold much hope for returning to his career as a journalist. Even his work associations centered around substance use, and he lacks faith in his writing ability. Anders is clearly intelligent and insightful, with strong professional credentials, and he has loving, supportive people in his life. But right now he is blind to those things. He holds little hope for his future, and it’s virtually impossible for him to see outside the moment.
Nevertheless, he makes the journey, planning to reconnect with his sister and with a close friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). Throughout the day, he encounters old friends and places, reminders of his past.
His conversations, particularly his talk with his old friend Thomas — once a partying buddy and now married with children — reveal a great deal. There is something real and raw about the scene in which Anders talks to Thomas about his life. And Thomas’s efforts to help his friend see glimmers of hope are painful and will resonate with anyone who’s ever tried to help a loved one on the brink of disaster.
But as is always the case in outstanding movies, the filmmaker conveys as much — if not more — in quiet moments. There is a wonderful scene, about halfway through the movie, in which Anders is sitting alone in a coffee shop. He is keenly aware of the people around him and is absorbing snippets of conversation. He is surrounded by strangers chatting about their relationships and random details of quotidian life — one young woman shares a list of hopes and plans for her future. In the midst of all this, Anders is silent and alone, imaginatively getting glimpses of people’s lives. His facial expressions and body language are subtle, yet — aided by brilliant cinematography — they speak volumes.
This is not a movie that will appeal to a viewer looking for sheer entertainment. However it’s an honest, compassionate film and an excellent study of despair, regret, and the struggle between fear and longing. It shows the ability of depression and addiction to narrow our range of vision, so we can’t see outside our own misery, and the difficulty of facing past mistakes and breaking away from old scripts.