When we meet the title character of A MAN CALLED OVE, he is having a very bad day. Squabbling with shop clerks, policing his neighbors regarding littering and pets, and being fired at almost 60 from the job he’s had since he was 16. Ove’s face is a study in dour dyspepsia, and his attitude is one that tells the casual observer to approach with caution, if at all. Hannes Holm’s perceptive, oddly funny, and unexpectedly optimistic film, based on the novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, does double-duty, telling us how Ove became a misanthrope, and how, in spite of himself, he’s pulled back into the thick of life after being thwarted in his first suicide attempt.
Ove’s endlessly interrupted desire to end it all to be with Sonje (an effervescent Ida Engvoll), his recently deceased wife, becomes an ongoing motif, and the stuff of both poignance and farce. The constant interruptions send him snorting with annoyance to see who at the door, or drive someone to the hospital, pull him further from his self-imposed isolation and more involved with his lively new neighbors, a Swede (Tobais Almborg), his heavily pregnant Iranian wife (Bahar Pars), and their two unconscionably adorable children, all of whom he regards with a baleful eye. They will inadvertently turn his carefully ordered life upside-down and then inside-out, and despite touching moments of Ove at his wife’s grave reminding us of the depths of his grief, we will be rooting for that family to bring him back from the limbo in which he lives.
Eventually, those delays include finding a home for the cat that was forced on him and teaching that pregnant neighbor, the one who manages to make him smile, how to drive. Without noticing it, he becomes attached to those kids and more worried about the people around him than he wants to admit. The story takes moments away from the present in order to fill us in on how an awkward and gangly young man (played by Filip Berg with an endearing seriousness) dealt with death as a child, found true love without looking for it, and lost a friend over brand loyalty.
We, too, become attached by almost imperceptible degrees to this off-putting, very difficult man. The performance by Rolf Lassgård is not one that panders to us, nor is it one that compromises on Ove’s depression. It eschews self-pity in favor of an astringently businesslike acceptance that his life, now bereft of wife and work, is over. And so when that neighbor coaxes a smile out of him, or he sneaks a wave at children through a window, this manifest capacity for happiness that he has rejected outright is profoundly moving. As is his penchant for (usually) dressing formally for his attempts to end his life, while his laconic flummoxing in the face of those neighbors, people so full of life that they assume it in others as a matter of course, is deadpan comedy at its best.
Told with an economy that favors character study over sentiment, A MAN CALLED OVE is deceptively simple in its direct approach and sly editing. In the end, we take Ove on his own terms, and he shows us how a bittersweet life can be a life very well lived.