The haunting drama Oslo, August 31st opens with a cross-section of people offering their memories of the Norwegian capital city. Most of the reminiscences are pleasant, and they pertain not to Oslo itself but to its people, the friends and family who make up the best parts of our lives.
After this tender, universal opening comes a story that's less overtly upbeat and is focused on one person, a 34-year-old man named Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) for whom the date in question is the proverbial first day of the rest of his life. Clean-shaven and smiling, Anders looks like a Best Buy salesman or a Mormon missionary, not a hardened drug addict. But he's just been released from a rehab facility after several months of being clean and sober, and he's tentatively gearing up to face the world.
He visits his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), who used to carouse with him but has long since settled down into marriage and family -- a good role model for Anders. He tries to contact an ex-girlfriend who has moved to New York. Conversations with family members are tense; he has lost their trust. He applies for a magazine job for which he is evidently qualified, but finds that the gap of several lost years in his work experience is a hindrance. All around him are reminders of his own Oslo, the one he's trying to get past.
Presented quietly and in long takes, the film was written and directed by Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier, whose first feature, Reprise, also starring Anders Danielsen Lie, made waves in world cinema circles a few years ago. (Oslo, August 31st was loosely inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's novel The Fire Within, which was also the subject of a Louis Malle film.) A list of the film's actual plot points would barely fill a page; Trier is more focused on character than action. Even when an addict succeeds in overcoming his addiction, what life is left for him to live? Is it sometimes too late? Have too many bridges been burned, too many loved ones hurt, for a former user to find support?
I would be surprised if there are many positive reviews of the film that don't use the word "haunting." It's exactly the right word for it. The movie itself doesn't have a lot of harrowing images or hard-to-watch sequences, but afterward, when the final moments have played out and we see the path Anders has put himself on, we feel unsettled. Without any flashiness or grandstanding, Joachim Trier and Anders Danielsen Lie make us sympathize with the character on a deeply personal level. Everyone deserves a second chance, and while this might be Anders' tenth or twentieth… still, we're rooting for him.