The opening scene in Concrete Night presents 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) watching a light rail train collapse into the Gulf of Finland. He finds his way inside and swims around, but soon thereafter he bangs on the window trying to fix this problem he made himself. Pirjo Honkasalo’s 2013 film Concrete Night sounds as though it could be an indulgent, indie flick with high production value and a lot of gimmicks. While the film has a high production value for sure, the off-beat and hard to define coming of age story proves just as compelling.
Finnish fixture Honkasalo has filled every role from cinematographer to film editor in her more than 40 years of filmmaking, which puts her in a unique position to be an expert in most major areas of film production. As a result I’m sure she played a role in Peter Flickenberg’s captivating cinematography which sets this film apart in how far it is willing to push conventions, uncharacteristically combining stark, high key lighting with a soft focus. The black and white coloring further transforms the notion of film noir young Simo probably has in his mind, into a sort of surreal dreamworld.
Honkasola can’t take all the credit because the screenplay was adapted from author Pirkko Saisio’s 1981 book of the same name. This is the bildungsroman you don’t normally see in film where confusion is highlighted and extracted almost to the point discomfort. Simo lives with his alcoholic Mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his soon to be imprisoned brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) in a confining, postmodern apartment in an equally confining concrete neighborhood. Ilkka, an insufferable loser by all accounts except Simo, bosses Simo around and intimidates their mother into complacency.
The presentation of Simo’s journey luckily allows us to see essentially the opposite of an unreliable narrator. Certainly there are scenes that can’t be taken literally, but his relationships although eccentric feel as grounded as a teen’s relationship with his family is expected to be. His mother prepares herself for a solid eight hours for a date just to get drunk and bring the man back to their apartment. Simo seems to take pleasure in deriding his mother in the same way Ilkka does, but we clearly see she is the ambitionless alcoholic Simo characterizes her as.
Conversely the audience has a stark view of how awful Ilkka is but here Simo can’t quite see past the alluring veneer of beer drinking, criminal older brother. When Illka takes Simo to a bar and he gets turned away for being underage Ilkka glares at the waitress, but Simo flips the whole table over.
In capturing the slice of puberty few acknowledge, i.e. the cruel and misguided decisions meant to impress, Concrete Night delivers above and beyond. While the attractive cinematography smoothes out some of the film’s darker edges, it is very much up to the viewer to negotiate the characters’ behavior. It can be challenging at points, but the seamless combination of disparate genres both tonally and visually makes this movie a must see.