Elsa Ohrn and Mustapha Aarab in JJ+E. Courtesy Netflix

MA 15+, 91 minutes

3 Stars





Review by © Jane Freebury

When a film gets remade, it’s intriguing for the quizzical questions it prompts. If the original worked well, why would it need a revision, whether it’s good or indifferent? If it was worth making again does it throw new light on the world we live in, the here and now?

The story of JJ+E, the love story of Swedish teenagers John John and Elisabeth, first appeared on the cinema screen 25 years ago in the film Vintervaken.  John John was a boy of colour then, as he is still in this new version, and Elisabeth is still the same kind of Scandinavian blonde.

This time round, Swedish actor Mustapha Aarab occupies the key role of John John, a boy from the notorious immigrant housing suburbs of Stockholm. Elsa Ohrn plays his Elisabeth, who’s from the Bromma area, one of the most affluent in the city. When they meet as students and get talking, he asks for a photo to go with the mobile number she has provided. Why, she asks, how many Elisabeths do you know? That says so much.

Elisabeth is the uptown girl from somewhere in the vast network of waterways and islands that is Stockholm, the Swedish capital. She likes to laze in the infinity pool alone at the family home which she shares with her little sister, Patricia (Elsa Bergstrom Terent), and father Frank (Magnus Krepper). The girls’ mother died recently, but they receive unwelcome visits from their glamorous but very unpleasant grandma (Marika Lagercrantz).

YA fiction that touches on social issues and is a window on Swedish society

The architect-designed contemporary space that is Elisabeth’s place would feature in lifestyle mags. What a home it is. The kind of mansion that John John and his friends in the hood would never enter. It’s just that they are invited in after John John rescues Patricia while out on a joyride in a stolen runabout with thuggish bestie, Sluggo (Jonay Pineda Skallak).

John John lives a world away from Bromma affluence. The son of a single mum whose current boyfriend, Patrik (Albin Grenholm), is revealed to deal drugs. Sluggo is known to the police for break-and-enter.

The selective drama class where John John and Elisabeth become friends is a place that seems likely common ground. Just how much this opportunity means to each of them isn’t much explored, although there is an interesting scene in which the young pair, now an item and surrounded by John John’s gang of friends, are quizzed about their acting ability. Can JJ really act? Can E really act? Show us then, the group insists.

Cross-cultural teen romance remake hints at disaffection that it doesn’t go through with

The film is strong in the first half but some subsequent moments are dramatically less satisfying. The rave dance party in the pine forest is mesmeric but the techno music seems to infiltrate other scenes where it doesn’t work so well, such as when John John declares his undying love for Elisabeth, and the scenes at drama school. But scenes involving Sluggo and the gang, where the potential for violence sits on a knife edge, are convincing for young adult drama.

When Vintervaken, the book by Mats Wahl that inspired this cross-cultural screen romance, came out in the 1990s it had an impact. The director of JJ+E, Alexis Almstrom, has said it had an impact on him when he was in his teens. In its first adaptation to screen the original film, Vintervaken, had the same title as the book. As it has since become set reading in Swedish schools, its themes and ideas must have had some cultural impact.

Whether the writing by Dunja Vujovic and author Wahl and the direction by Almstrom have done a good job bringing the story forward into the 21st century is up to Swedish audiences to decide. There has been a a lot more immigration into the country this century and it’s no doubt having a knock-on effect on local politics.

Since the mid-20th century, the mention of Swedish cinema has made people think blondes, nudity and a light censor’s touch. Since films like Let The Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there have been other impressions.

This YA fiction features none of the above but it touches on social issues and is a window on Swedish society. There is no doubt that Elisabeth is an enigmatic character. Her last scenes had a hint of Patty Hearst.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 September 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes