We begin with what appear to be snippets of scenes from some distant memories. Photographs and home video clips are flashed in a montage. There are voice-overs reminiscing some happy times, perhaps from someone’s childhood and growing up over the years.
But suddenly we cut to the central character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he wakes up in bed and sits in stunned silence, looking sullen, very clearly getting that feeling of waking up to reality. Was that a dream? Had he just drifted away, overcome by nostalgia, back to the days of yore, in times which were very obviously happier?
In the next few minutes we learn that Anders is a recovering drug addict in a rehabilitation program. He gets a day’s leave from his rehab home to go on the outside and try his luck with a job interview. Anders has been clean for over 10 months now, and hasn’t touched a drug or alcohol ever since. It is no mean feat, as some say, very few people manage to make it to the other side. The film then follows Anders as he spends this day in Oslo, the city he grew up in, catching up with old friends, fixing a meeting with his sister, and amongst other things, trying his hand at getting a position as an editorial assistant at a local publication.
Not through explicit depictions, but through some conversations between characters, we come to know that Anders has had a very disturbing recent past as an addict. His addiction had taken a huge toll on his love life, family life, social life, almost about everything! Completely blinded by it, he is financially drained out, and now, apparently, his parents are forced to sell their family house.
At the outset Anders seems to be doing pretty well with his rehabilitation, being genuinely abstinent for almost a year. It is not unknown that coming out of the drug habit is a herculean task. But can life go back to complete normalcy after one is out of it? Not in all cases…
Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier's "Oslo, August 31st", using Anders as a medium, tries to focus on this very aspect of recovering. Substance abuse not only destroys a person physically; it also hampers the person psychologically, doing irreparable damage to that one thing that contributes significantly to mending anything under the sun, and getting life back on track; that thing called hope!
The trip to Oslo turns out to be a wake-up call, rather than a pleasure trip. Anders is now 34. He sees that his buddy Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, in a naturalistic, superb, performance) is now happily married, has two kids, living a normal life. Other friends too, have moved on and settled down. In one of the best scenes, in a lengthy conversation between the two buddies, Anders reveals his true feelings. He feels left behind. He feels he has lost precious years of his life. It is an irreversible reality that Anders has to face. And he is too scared of this fact. He certainly cannot start from scratch. His views are full of pessimism, and no matter how much Thomas tries to make him feel better, and tries convincing that things are not as bad as they seem, Anders seems to think otherwise, and even harbors suicidal thoughts! In an attempt to ease Anders’ worries, Thomas even goes to the extent of bringing out details of his own life, stressing upon the fact that him and his wife have gradually slipped into this humdrum family life, and that it isn’t as happening as Anders might think it is.
One can’t help but feel Anders’ anguish. Anders Danielsen Lie, with his superlative, heartbreaking performance, makes it all the more believable, as we feel at one with Anders and can instantly relate to him. The filming is minimalist, the acting: amazingly natural, the camerawork: life-like, and there is usage of a hand-held camera for the most part making us viewers feel that it’s actually us, following Anders with a camera, as he covers his itinerary in Oslo…it is that real!
The buddies part, with Thomas hoping for the best, and with the promise of meeting Anders in a party, later in the evening, at another couple’s place, their common friends.
The job interview gives Anders a ray of hope, as it kicks off well, but a question posed by the interviewer, about a time gap seen in the CV, makes Anders mad and it ends in a disaster, just like he predicts (or wants?). Anders’ case is very understandable. He probably belongs to that category of people who like to wallow in pity and have long lost the patience to do anything about it. Or as Thomas even exclaims once, seeing his attitude, "Be a loser. If that’s what you want". Although one would like to think that the defeatist attitude, perhaps, stems from the shattered confidence.
With "Oslo, August 31st", which is only his second feature-length film, Joachim Trier has delivered a masterpiece. Rarely does one come across such a restrained, yet frighteningly real and intimate study of a drug addict coming out of the habit. It’s a deeply human drama; a crushing portrait of a troubled young man, a representative of all youngsters out there who are a little more adventurous than they should be. By the end of the first half, we are just too well acquainted with Anders. So much so, that during all the events that take place in the latter half of the film, we feel genuine concern and really wish things would get back on track for him, despite the obvious lag the addiction has introduced in his life. And therefore, we sincerely wish that he wouldn’t pick up that glass of wine at a party he visits later. We wish he wouldn’t follow some friends who decide to go to a rave party.
We keep wishing, for we still have our hopes intact. Only deep within, we are aware of the devastating truth, that Anders has lost his.