Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31,” “Reprise”) possesses a clear-eyed humanism that’s unique among his contemporaries. It’s all well and good to celebrate the quirks and foibles of mankind when presenting characters who are kind and generous, but Trier manages to make us love the men and women in his movies even when they display the worst of our collective traits. They can be petty, spiteful, duplicitous or secretive, but their creator understands them, and guides us in the audience toward empathizing with them as well.
That skill for relatability holds fast in “Louder Than Bombs,” all the more impressively given that Trier is working in English for the first time, a leap that has undone many a talented international director. Trier’s screenplay (with frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt, “Blind”) nails the rhythms of a variety of speakers, from world-renowned artists to pompous intellectuals to nervous high-schoolers, and the performances from a consistently impressive ensemble demonstrate the director’s skill at working with actors in a language that isn’t his native tongue.
Despite the title, this is a quiet, intimate story of a family reeling from tragedy, but it’s no less loaded with revelations and breakthroughs, all set at a recognizably human volume.
In a masterful pre-credits sequence that could be its own short film, young professor Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) ventures into the bustling hallways of a hospital to track down food for his hungry wife Amy (Megan Ketch, “Jane the Virgin”), who has just given birth to their first child. He doesn’t find a cafeteria, but he does encounter ex-girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan, “House of Cards”) and stops to chat her up. Not only does he not mention his newly-minted fatherhood, he allows himself to be comforted by Erin, who mistakenly thinks he’s there because Amy is sick.
This is rotten behavior, yes, but we will come to understand what’s behind Jonah’s hesitancy about parenting once we learn more about the relationship between his own father Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a high-school teacher, and mother Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a war photographer whose grisly images of combat have brought her fame but also nightmares. Isabelle has been dead for several years after what the world believes to be a car accident; an impending gallery show of her work, however, brings with it a New York Times piece by former collaborator (and lover) Richard (David Strathairn), which will reveal that a troubled Isabelle actually took her own life by intentionally driving into an oncoming truck.
Gene isn’t prepared to break this news to younger son Conrad (Devin Druid, “Olive Kittredge”), who has already had a hard-enough time dealing with his mother’s absence. The fact that Gene has been secretly dating Conrad’s English teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan), only adds to the complications between father and son.
“Louder Than Bombs” spins its various plates successfully, with Conrad’s story bearing as much weight as the adult dramas unfurling around him. The film quotes plenty of high-school-angst classics (from borrowing a character name from “Ordinary People” to borrowing a section of Tangerine Dream’s score from “Risky Business”), and Conrad’s eventual conversation with seemingly unattainable popular girl Melanie (Ruby Jerins, “Nurse Jackie”) will feel achingly familiar to anyone who ever had one of those transcendent, one-time adolescent encounters with someone from an entirely different echelon in the teenage pecking order. That their scene together is set against a lovely sunrise captured by director of photography Jakob Ihre (“The End of the Tour”) only enhances the moment.
What makes “Louder Than Bombs” so powerful are those pivots in the story where a typical film would go for obvious explanations, or big confrontations, or instant catharsis. These characters are intelligent — not always emotionally so, granted – and their reckonings and realizations play out in a manner that we recognize from life, if not always from the movies.