First-time director Iram Haq also gets an astoundingly real performance from a 7-year-old, who was not a happy camper
Where is the fine line between human frailty and depraved selfishness?
The question is probed to much discomfort in “I Am Yours,” the multicultural drama from first-time director Iraq Ham and starring Amrita Acharia (who played the Dothraki handmaiden Irri on HBO's “Game of Thrones”). Both were on hand Thursday night for TheWrap‘s packed screening of the Norwegian foreign-language Oscar entry at the Landmark in Los Angeles.
The story follows Mina, a 27-year-old Pakistani living in Oslo, Norway, and her 7-year-old son with her ex-husband, who left her because she flirts with so many men – so says her browbeating mother, anyway. It turns out Mom is right: Mina has serious boundary issues, the latest beneficiary being Jesper (“Skyfall” actor Ola Rapace), a film director living in Stockholm, Sweden, where she travels to fan the flames of their budding relationship – with little Felix in tow.
The boy's presence quickly puts the new romance under great strain, and is even worse for Felix, whose discomfited performance is remarkably spot-on, especially from a child actor. And there's a reason for that – the boy was not a happy camper on the set, either.
“It's quite hard to give instruction to kids, and this is my first feature, and this little boy, after a short while, didn't want to play movie any more,” said Haq, who also wrote the script and shot the movie over two years. “So it was very hard. He just wanted to go home. I tried to find out how to get into him, and we had little time, and we did our best, and Felix did his best.”
The result is heartbreaking; rather than coming across as precocious, Felix does all the things any parent would recognize in an unhappy 7-year-old: going limp in the middle of a walk, putting his head on the table for no reason, and acting out randomly, with bursts of affection and melancholy and love and rage.
“I think it worked because a lot of the struggle we had with him, a lot of the things he felt toward me, because my character was so mean to him, at the time, confused him,” said Acharia. “So in a sense we got such an authentic performance out of him because the lines between real life and acting were blurred. He really didn't understand me. He hated me most of the time! Which is fine – because we kind of, in a selfish way, got what we wanted out of him.”
See photos: TheWrap Awards Screening Series 2013
Speaking of selfishness, it's a major theme of “I Am Yours” – Mina is not a bad mother, or a bad person, for that matter, but her decisions are constantly driven by her own immediate desires. It's a default that has dire consequences. She is shunned by her family; her ex husband, at first supportive and kind, becomes furious with her; and the many men in her life recognize early that they can take advantage.
“Everyone in the movie is quite selfish,” Haq said. “Her mother is selfish, and she doesn't get any love from her family, and Mina – she has nothing, in some way. She has her son. But she is always running after being loved. So she does everything to get loved by her parents, and these guys … and even though they treat her like shit, she keeps after it because she doesn't know what love is.”
That may sound hopeless, but as a few audience members pointed out, it's also an honest truth about our nature, which makes “I Am Yours” a standout.
“It's really often that we see female characters being as good a person as possible,” Haq said. “This is a normal human being.”
That said, Mina has anything but a “normal” background. Like the actress who portrays her (Acharia is Nepalese and Ukranian, and grew up in Kathmandu, Ukraine, England and Norway) Mina is unmoored from any one culture, and instead is constantly trying to reconcile her many facets; it's a struggle that Haq went through herself.
“I started to make a real personal story; I wanted to make a very naked and true story … it's been a hard journey, I have a Pakistani background, I was born and grew up in Norway, and was caught between two different cultures in a hard way,” Haq said. “Being in between two cultures makes it more lonely, in a way. She is struggling with trying to make this no life without any culture.”
That loneliness erupts in the film's final, cathartic scene; Mina is on yet another “date” with a near-stranger, though this time he's a decent guy, who's just letting things progress slowly when she throws herself at him. Then, in the middle of doing so, Mina breaks down completely.
It is a powerful passage, one that drew an audible response from the crowd, as well as a comparison to another emotional breakdown scene on people's minds this awards season: the last few minutes of “Captain Phillips.”
“That was a last-minute addition, and very different from the original script,” said Acharia. “We didn't do a lot of preparation. We did five takes; I remember that. … Luckily at that point we had gone through so much of Mina's life, it was the second part of filming, so we'd gone through a lot of discussions, we both knew the character inside out, and I remember Iram giving me the direction for this scene and while she was giving me direction, I was literally breaking up. … Although I am multicultural, I had all the support in the world to integrate and to play a character who didn't get that chance, I understood at that point what she'd been through. All of the sudden that scene made complete sense to me, and it was very easy to play.”