Astrid Lindgren sits by a table reading letters from adoring children. It’s her birthday. The camera slowly captures her silhouette and we only see a glimpse of her face. The film “Becoming Astrid“ opens with scenes of the beloved author late in life, but this is a story about her stormy teens in the 1920s that so intensely shaped her body of work. It’s an unknown chapter of her life.

While plenty of biopics unexcitingly cover the whole life of a famous person, “Becoming Astrid” focuses on a short character-defining period many years before the author's breakthrough.

In rural Vimmery, deep down in Sweden’s Småland, the restless 16-year-old Astrid (Alba August) lives a carefree life like one of Lindgren’s characters in "The Children of Noisy Village." She tells stories at the kitchen table to her siblings and religious parents, dances the Charleston by herself and warms her hands on cow’s bodies. Eager to break free from her conservative upbringing and looking like Pippi Longstocking with long ponytails, she gets an internship at the tiny local paper. Soon the sexually awakening teenager attracts the attention of the married, middle-aged editor (Henrik Rafaelsen). Astrid gets pregnant and feels forced to go to Copenhagen to secretly give birth to a son whom she leaves in the care of a foster mother. But with a newfound courage Astrid just won’t accept how things are.

It’s a compelling story but told in an uneven way. The Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen, who spent a lot of her childhood in the forest of Småland, chooses to play it safe with an utterly straightforward narrative. Despite a lack of depth and artistic courage, the film somehow engages, but only if you are familiar with Astrid Lindgren. If not, it would just be another conventional coming-of-age tale.

Alba August, the daughter of the Swedish actress/director Pernilla and Danish director Bille, is stunning as the curious, rebellious and caring young Astrid. Her body language and expressions are beautiful - she carries light and energy, sadness and pain on her tiny shoulders. Trine Dyrholm as the foster mother is wonderful, and the little Lasse child unexpectedly steals scenes. But many of the supporting characters are caricatures, and several actors, like Maria Bonnevie, who plays the mother, are painfully theatrical.
The fact that Astrid doesn’t have a “småländsk” dialect, which her parents have, is only one reason why the film’s credibility is thin. The manipulating soundtrack and the simply emotional tricks are others - the film feels self-aware and stiff. Perhaps there was a reason the author’s only living child Karin Nyman strongly criticized the making of the film. The late Astrid Lindgren deserves a film that comes to life.

By Niclas Goldberg

Becoming Astrid will be released on DVD in March. Preorder your own copy from Nordstjernan beginning March 1 to be among the first to see it.