Impressively well-acted and proudly unsentimental, And Breathe Normally tackles broad themes through a zoomed-in slice of everyday life.
Ísold Uggadóttir’s And Breathe Normally isn’t about the end of the world, but it feels as though it’s set there. On the desolate, rugged Reykjanes Peninsula in chilly, blue-tinged Iceland, Uggadóttir’s impressive social-realist drama tackles head-on themes of poverty, sexuality, addiction, and the global refugee crisis, through the lens of an unlikely but emotional bond between two women and a young boy.
One of the women is a struggling Icelandic single mother, Lára (Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir), who is offered a position as a trainee border guard at Keflavík airport just days before poverty swallows her and her young son, Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson). Lára is a recovering addict, whose habit threatens to resurface, and her pride makes her resistant to charity and government support. She’s having a low-key lesbian relationship with the tight-lipped mother of one of Eldar’s classmates, and hasn’t always had full-time custody of the boy, whom she takes on an “adventure” that involves sleeping in the car.
The understated economy with which And Breathe Normally churns through these details is the film’s great strength, alongside its naturalistic performances and well-observed sense of place. (Credit should go to Polish cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zaj for promoting the desolate Icelandic landscape to a starring role.) It’s easy to believe the eagerness Lára brings to her new employment, where almost immediately she discovers a discrepancy in illegitimate paperwork that leaves Adja (Babetida Sadjo), an asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau, stranded in bureaucratic limbo.
Adja, far from her own child, is played with such warmth and selflessness by Guinea-born Belgian actress Sadjo that you scarcely question her decision, when the women cross paths again, to smuggle Lára and Eldar into the run-down refugee centre so they have a place to stay. That decision might strain credibility, but the performances and Uggadóttir’s own screenplay ground it. Known for her prize-winning female-focused short films, the director builds a strong sense of human connection amid tireless inhuman government wheel-spinning, and various narrative turns deployed to show how the women have more in common that they thought each resist mawkishness and manipulation.
Debuting on Netflix today (alongside Lionheart) after a well-received festival run last year, And Breathe Normally is a powerful, patient film, occasionally as cold as its setting, but nonetheless displaying a concern for the lives of its subjects – fictional, but all-too-close to real – that remains moving and gripping for its duration.