Before there was Matilda Wormwood, Hermione Granger, or Katniss Everdeen, there was Pippi Longstocking. You may not recall the details of the books – you may not have even read them – but you almost certainly know that name. Fewer of us know the name of Astrid Lindgren, the iconic Swedish author who created Pippi. Becoming Astrid, the new biopic of Lindgren’s early life, makes a strong case that not only is her name worth knowing, her story is also worth telling.
That story begins in rural Sweden in the 1920s, where a 16-year-old Astrid is chafing against the restrictions of family, religion, and convention. Seeing her ambition as well as her passion for writing, Astrid’s father talks with the editor of the local paper about getting Astrid a job there. When Astrid and the not-quite-divorced editor begin an affair that results in her pregnancy, the young writer finds herself forced to make a number of difficult decisions.
The performances of all of the actors are very good, but Alba August as Astrid is the anchor and the heart of Becoming Astrid. Whether conveying her disdain for cultural and social norms, her joy in dancing by herself on a crowded dance floor, or her heartbreak and shame at realizing she may not be fit to parent her child, August’s expressions are more important in telling Astrid’s story than the Swedish film’s subtitles.
Astrid is also in very good hands as a character. Director Pernille Fischer Christensen, who also co-wrote the film, has a clear understanding of who this woman is and where she will go throughout the story. It’s in the minor touches – such as the fact that Astrid never knocks before entering a room or building, even when she’s entering for a job interview – that tell you what you need to know about Astrid to really understand her story.
And although this is Astrid’s story, the impact of having a film helmed by a woman is most evident in the dimension of two of the supporting characters: Astrid’s mother Hanna (Marie Bonnevie) and Astrid’s son’s foster mother Marie (Trine Dyrholm). Either character could have easily become a caricature, but Christensen is so respectful of the women in her story that she allows each a level of complexity that is too rare for these kinds of roles. Bonnevie’s performance in particular is the one that will stick with many viewers long after they’ve left the theater. While it’s Astrid’s father who sees and is sympathetic to what his daughter wants, Hanna is the one who has actually lived the life of wife and mother in that place and time. Although she may seem insensitive or distant, she’s the one who understands the harsh reality of their world and what Astrid is most likely to need.
Roughly 165 million copies of Astrid Lindgren’s books have been sold. She’s one of the most translated writers in history, and she’s undoubtedly an international icon for children’s literature. But in the hands of these filmmakers, her story would be worth knowing even if Pippi Longstocking had never shown up in print. Astrid’s story connects on a human level, not an iconic one, and that’s Becoming Astrid’s greatest strength.