Sundance 2015: Saoirse Ronan-Starring Stockholm, Pennsylvania Captivates, But Only For a Little Bit

By  · Published on January 29th, 2015

Fido Features

“Do you remember Mr. and Mrs. Dangett?”

Somewhere in a single room at the bottom of a single house, a single man and a single girl live out their entire lives. Nikole Beckwith’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania chronicles what happens after all of that, after a sheltered child is returned to her real life and her real home, and what that feels like almost after nearly two decades away. Saoirse Ronan stars in the well-tuned drama as a small child once known as Leanne, kidnapped as a toddler, renamed “Leia” (after some sort of princess, she tells us later), and sentenced to live in a basement with a stranger (Jason Isaacs) for the foreseeable future. Beckwith’s film explores what happens after Leanne/Leia is rescued and given back to her shell-shocked and emotionally unstable parents (Cynthia Nixon and David Warshofsky). It’s not exactly easy.

Desperate to make Leia comfortable (first concession: calling her “Leia”), Nixon’s Marcy is almost overly solicitous and gentle, spending the majority of the first act routinely trying to get her daughter to relax. Nothing is less relaxing than being told, repeatedly, cloyingly, unceasingly, to relax. Warshofsky’s father figure takes a decidedly more stand-off approach, the kind that seems to appeal to Leia, even as it infuriates Marcy. The battle lines are drawn early, but Beckwith is not content to ever let them stay in place. Stockholm, Pennsylvania moves and shifts with ease during its first two acts, punctuated by fine and feeling language and snappy editing.

As Leia attempts – mostly half-heartedly – to settle into a life that is foreign to her, we learn more about her life in Ben’s (Isaacs) basement, and we begin to understand why she misses him so accurately. Originally written as a play, Beckwith peppers her production with extremely theatrical tricks, most notably sequences that depict memories of Leia’s that are staged in her current location (a young Leia speaks to Ben in their basement home, but the action plays out in Leia’s bedroom at “home,” and so on and so forth). It’s an affected way of doing things, and the bright light that pops up to signal that Leia is about to slip into a memory state is unnecessary and a little amateur, but it serves its purpose to get us inside Leia’s head.

Inside Leia’s head is a strange place to be. For the first two acts, Beckwith’s script stays even-handed, refusing to pass judgement on Leia, Ben, or her parents. That’s no easy trick, and all that equanimity proves to be frequently infuriating – Leia deserves a swift dose of reality, especially after spending years trapped in a basement where she’s repeatedly told by Ben that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that he was sent to save her (Ben’s lies extend quite far, he even convinces a young Leia that some of the world’s finest natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, are no more), yet everyone is terrified to deliver it to her. Even her therapist, the kind-voiced Dr. Andrews (Rosalind Chao) makes a point to ask softball questions and respond to Leia’s words with even more softball answers.

That Leia lived in a a dream world while in Ben’s basement isn’t the point – that she lives in one after being supposedly free is. And it’s not just that she’s sheltered, it’s that she’s trapped. Even now. Even at home. All of Beckwith’s fine filmmaking (and Ronan and Nixon’s excellent acting) leads up to an improbable and overwrought final act that seems more concerned with shocking its audience than delivering on the ideas and messages it was so clearly working with previously. Hammy and heavy-handed, it feels like something ripped from a Lifetime movie, something wholly different than the first hour-plus of Stockholm, Pennsylvania, an outlier and a stranger.

The Upside: Excellent performances by both Ronan and Nixon, a sharply written first and second act, beautifully edited.

The Downside: An exceptionally overwrought and heavy-handed third act punctuated by unbelievable turns and behaviors.

On the Side: Per Wikipedia (thanks, Wikipedia!), “the FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 8% of victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.”