The Spool / Festivals
TIFF 2019: “Resin” Offers A Life Stored In Amber
Danish director Daniel Joseph Borgman’s coming of age drama is an uncomfortable story of abuse, mental illness, and escape.
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Danish director Daniel Joseph Borgman’s coming of age drama is an uncomfortable story of abuse, mental illness, and escape.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Resin throws its audience into the deep end – literally – right from the start. Daniel Joseph Borgman‘s film opens with bodies thrashing and diving in the surf, with the camera positioned below, calmly surveying the chaotic frenzy above. It is revealed that a father, Jens (Peter Plaugborg), is looking for his young daughter and she is believed drowned, though not everything is as it seems.

This is an apt description of the film as a whole: despite cinematographer Louise McLaughlin’s frequent use of a handheld camera, typically used to create a sense of intimacy and immediacy, here ensures a slight analytical detachment. In capturing the story of a family that has willingly withdrawn from the world, the camera is a bit like an intruder, an anthropological observer lurking on the fringes, aiming to capture the drama and the horror to come.

Of the high profile Danish films that have crossed international waters to play the festival circuit, such as Sons of Denmark or Queen of Hearts, Resin stands separate as a rural drama. Far from a portrait of a modern city, dealing with immigration or sexual politics, this is instead a pared-down dark fairy tale about a family in recession, desperate to retreat to subsistence living in extreme isolation.

After the opening sequence in the water, Resin skips ahead “many summers later” and picks up with the family, now living in a rundown house in the woods. Jens is teaching his very much alive pre-teen daughter, Liv (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) survival skills – how to hunt and skin game – while also warning her of outsiders. His lessons are reiterated in Liv’s voice over, which offers insight into the nearly non-verbal girl’s psyche; she is clearly under her father’s influence and her unquestioning devotion to him and her obese, bedridden mother Maria (Sofie Gråbøl) verges on dangerous.

Everything changes when an older woman appears in the town pub. This is the only other location of significance in the film and it populated by gossipy locals, as well as a friendly bartender, Roald (Amanda Collin). Into this uninviting environment comes Jens’ mother, Else (Ghita Nørby), who is estranged from her son and therefore unaware of her granddaughter’s “death”.

Screenwriter Bo hr. Hansen uses Else’s introduction to completely upend Jens, Maria and Liv’s insular world in ways both violent and emotional. Else’s appearance prompts Liv to (slowly) begin questioning her father’s lessons about the outside world, and the young girl begins embarking on covert nightly outings. Meanwhile, the combination of Else’s appearance on the island and Liv’s break-ins at the pub raises eyebrows as the locals turn their attention to the strange family living deep in the woods.

Resin takes its title both literally and metaphorically. One of Jens’ trades is preserving items in amber, which takes the form of an especially gruesome commemoration 2/3 of the way through the film. Metaphorically, Jens has such an irrational fear of outside forces that he’s essentially turned his wife and daughter into prisoners caught in a time capsule. He’s so terrified that Liv will be taken away that he refuses to allow any of them to truly live, preferably to keep them sequestered like the ants he and Liv trap in amber early in the film.

It’s a compelling portrait of the damages of abuse, mental illness, and fear, though Liv’s curiosity and the new bond she tentatively forms with Roald provides some hope (and levity) to the otherwise grim proceedings. The film is beautifully grimy, filled with green and brown earth tones that balance out the stilted, decrepit greys of the ramshackle house that the family lives in.

It’s a compelling portrait of the damages of abuse, mental illness, and fear.

While Liv is the film’s protagonist and her journey of emancipation is the focal point, it is Plaugborg’s performance as a ferociously protective father that is the show stopper. His fear of losing his family is palpable, and Borgman deliberately trains the camera in close-ups of Jens’ bulging eyes and frantic motions whenever a new threat emerges. 

In one of the most visually compelling scenes, Jens begins smashing and breaking items in a rage. As Liv tries to console him, Borgman cuts away to a static long shot of the entrance so that only Jens’ grunts and Liv’s pleas for him to stop are heard. It’s a powerful reminder that, like a reclusive family living on the edge of society, not everything needs to be seen to be impactful.

If there is one complaint to be made about Resin, it is that the film traffics in inevitability. There’s no way that this idyllic, unconventional family can survive; their sequestered lives are over the moment that Else sets foot in the bar. While the film is only 92 minutes, the climax, in particular, feels drawn out because we have been anticipating the violent encounters for nearly the entire film. Still, as a dark fairy tale, coming-of-age film, Resin is beautifully shot and performed and offers an alternative to the kind of Danish films making the international festival circuit.