Perched up high, hiding in the rafters of TIFF 2016, was Selma Vilhunen's Little Wing. At first glance, the film—which was tucked into the festival's Discovery section—is a familiar story: a preteen runs away to track down her absentee father. But this Finnish film is far from ordinary. To tell her poignant coming-of-age tale, Vilhunen has crafted an intimate form of realism that recalls Cate Shortland's underseen masterpiece, Somersault. Like that film, Little Wing's cinematography manages to evoke a strong mood without calling attention to itself. The performances are similarly unobtrusive; though the film is dramatic, there is little in the way of excess dialogue or theatrics. Little Wing leaves just enough room to slip inside 12-year-old Varpu's story and experience her full range of emotional discovery.
Varpu (Linnea Skog) has a difficult life. Her depressed, single mother struggles to complete even the simplest tasks; Varpu, reticent but full of grit, steps up to the plate to reassure and support her in matters both practical and emotional. It's no wonder the girl decides to find her father—in Varpu's mind, his absence is what prevents her from being a "normal" kid.
"I do think that there's beauty in every angle. It's just how you look at it."
Varpu's quest is beleaguered by pitfalls and false leads; through it, she uncovers some disappointing realities about the human condition. But ultimately, Varpu's challenging life experiences mature rather than traumatize her. Her early exposure to fragile psyches, mental illness, and the disillusionment of adulthood fortify the young girl, giving her the tools she needs to build her own life, come what may.
Vilhunen uses life's natural rhythms fuel her narrative. In Little Wing, as in life, growing up is not a straightforward process. There are fits and starts; some difficult experiences seem to serve no explicit purpose. But that's precisely the beauty of Vilhunen's realism. Since when does life owe us an explanation for its turbulence?
"Some safety net in the back of my mind was that, if need be, then fuck the budget."
"In reviews, people have been saying the narrative structure is unwieldy, but I like it that way," Vilhunen told No Film School at TIFF 2016. "It's intentional. I want it to feel like bits and pieces."
This is a personal story for Vilhunen. When the director was very young, her father, who suffered from schizophrenia, committed suicide. "Making this film was my way of meeting him," said Vilhunen. Though the film's narrative details are not strictly autobiographical, Vilhunen was "inspired by the emotions" she experienced growing up with a struggling single mother. "In the mother character, I also explored my own motherhood," she revealed. "It's a combination of perceptions of my mom and myself as a mom."
While it may have been cathartic, Vilhunen insists that the process of making Little Wing was not therapy. "If you need therapy, then you need to go see a therapist," she joked.
Credit: TIFF 2016
This is not Vilhunen's first rodeo. In 2012, her short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? was nominated for an Oscar. But before that, "there was a project that took three years of my life but didn't get funded," she recalled. "Of course, the Oscar nomination helped in some ways, but I'd like to think it wasn't a condition to get Little Wing made."
What did? The Nordisk Film Fund, a public institution that supports small films in Scandinavia. "I really think that the public funding system is wonderful," said Vilhunen. "It allows more diversity. It is also the kind of funding that you don't have to pay back, so it's an art support system, and also quite a democratic one. You don't need that much of your own capital. Anyone who has a good story can make a film."
Before coming to TIFF with Little Wing, this was something Vilhunen admittedly took for granted. "It's always very eye-opening when we listen to other filmmakers from other countries and how they struggle to get their films made," she said. "We remember that we come from this safe haven, which we often forget. We have quite a fantastic situation in our home country."
"I was looking for authenticity and being close to the characters."
Of course, film funds do have their downsides. "The budgets aren't anything super great," admitted Vilhunen. As a result, she significantly pared down her schedule. "It was pretty tight," she said. "We had 25 days with a full crew. I didn't want to give one scene too much attention at the cost of another scene. Each time the camera rolled, I wanted to be sure that we had the chance to do exactly what we wanted and not make compromises." The last thing Vilhunen wanted her actors to feel was rushed, so she pulled the curtain over the reality of their harried schedule. "I didn't want them to be worried about their performance," she said. "I wanted them to feel that they can take as long as they need."
"I guess some kind of a safety net in the back of my mind was that, if need be, then fuck the budget," Vilhunen added. "I would just go sell [stuff]."
Credit: TIFF 2016
Though Linnea Skog is poised and expressive on camera, Little Wing is her first film. "It was kind of difficult," she admitted. "Some emotions were a little hard, but I'd talk to Selma and I'd get through."
Vilhunen's emphasis on realism aided the process. Working with her cinematographer Tuomo Hutri, Vilhunen created a visual language that would enhance—rather than distract audiences from—the story. "I wanted my little girl to be in the raw landscape and without much light," she said. "The softish light was an important thing—when it comes to lighting, I wanted to make sure that the audience is not aware of it so that we can really be absorbed in [Varpu's] life. I don't want people to say, 'Oh that's such a beautiful image of the girl.' But instead, the audience is the girl."
In building out her film's world, Vilhunen shied away from over-preparation, opting instead to let her work be rough around the edges. "I was looking for authenticity and being close to the characters," Vilhunen said. "I was looking for the beauty of everyday life. I tried to get rid of too much decoration and neatness or color coding. I wanted the art design and the landscapes to allow some mistakes, some randomness and ugliness. I do think that there's beauty in every angle. It's just how you look at it."