A New Kind of Wilderness review: Intimate documentary about a family returning to new normal - Hindustan Times

A New Kind of Wilderness review: Intimate documentary about a family returning to new normal

Mar 15, 2024 01:27 PM IST

A New Kind of Wilderness, playing at Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, is a quietly affecting story of a Norwegian family dealing with loss.

In A New Kind of Wilderness (Ukjent Landskap), which premiered at CPH: DOCX, filmmaker Silje Evensmo Jacobsen follows the quiet Norwegian family of six, where Maria Gros Vatne lives with her husband Nik Payne and four kids. Ronja, the eldest of the four, is Maria's daughter from a previous relationship. They choose to live far away from the bustle of city life, tucked away in the woods where all the kids learn through homeschooling. It becomes abundantly clear that this family has decided not to keep in touch with the outside world, committed to their off-the-grid lifetsyle. (Also read: Poor Things movie review: Emma Stone is captivating in this Oscar-nominated, visually stunning tale by Yorgos Lanthimos)

A still from A New Kind of Wilderness.
A still from A New Kind of Wilderness.

The premise

Soon, the tone will shift as the family will come to face a tragedy that will change their lives forever. Yet, expect no drastic sensationalism in the way this 83 minute-long documentary, as the vérité sensibilities of A New Kind of Wilderness presents these people just as they are- inhabiting their space without being guided by an outside voice. It all happens quickly in the doc, where Maria has cancer and then dies. The immediate roadblock appears in terms of the financial situation of the family, as it was Maria's blogging and photography that kept the family afloat. Without her, Nik cannot afford to sustain the farm, plus also take on some work. Who will take care of the kids then?

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These shifts propel the family to relocate to a more populated area where he takes on work as a manual labourer. Furthermore, it is Ronja who goes on to live with her father now. These sudden, unfolding changes disrupt the peace and harmony of the family. Yet, the more A New Kind of Wilderness eggs on for the search of an emotional anchor, the more Jacobsen's lens steers clear away from any kind of submission. The vérité style filmmaking is a choice that works more than it suffers, because at one hand there's an unfiltered and poignant flow to the scenes where the camera is next to invisible when it is around the family. It allows the kids to approach and gather every little struggle with genuine attention.

Final thoughts

On the other hand, the consideration also backfires in the precarious nature of the film, where the narrative gently teases at these emotions without really digging deep into their dynamic as a family. Why were Maria and Nik bent on taking this decision? What are their insecurities about modern livelihood and what kind of confirmation do they resist? The film seems resistant in asking tougher questions. At one point Nik asks, "Am I completely ruining my children's lives here?" Then again, Maria speaks from an old footage, where she says, "When you choose a life that is so dependent on yourself, there's a vulnerability there." What are these vulnerabilities? What are their reasons? Even as Jacobsen's camera often guides these people so that no harm is caused to them, more than a little harm is caused in the steadfast gaze of this film.

A New Kind of Wilderness is about grief and parenthood, as much it is about one's place in this world. The small moments between Nik and the children, captured tenderly in the latter half echo with true empathy and care for these people. I was reminded of Debra Granik's wondrous feature film Leave No Trace, where Thomasin Mckenzie makes the tough decision whether to stay with her isolated father in the woods. I longed for that toughness in A New Kind of Wilderness, but perhaps this is a film that refuses that wound to enter into the affectionate portrait of a family at play here.

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