Anchored by a remarkable child's performance, The Swan is a sensitive example of an overlooked element in coming-of-age films: awakening to the outside world. Nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir) is an insular girl, her imagination fueled by the craggy shoreline and unceasing sea that surround her small Icelandic coastal community. She's angry and resentful at being sent away for the summer, a banishment presented in Gudbergur Bergsson's 1991 novel as the punishment for shoplifting.
Writer-director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir's entrancing adaptation makes Sól's exile to an inland farm more vague, a punitive act inflicted by baffled adults who see her restless curiosity as pernicious rebellion. Sól's great aunt and uncle regularly take in wayward kids, believing that hard work and exposure to nature will straighten them out. By presenting events primarily from the perspective of this thoughtful, observant girl, Hjörleifsdóttir's first feature highlights the flaws in the rural couple's reductive approach while chronicling the maturation of a child who's experiencing dizzying new emotions and struggling to comprehend the powerful discontent of adults.
Hjörleifsdóttir continually shifts from Sól's hazy point of view, a dreamlike and intimate cocoon, to a sharp vision of what's happening around her with startling effectiveness. But what Sól mostly perceives are the adults she both admires and disdains: the compassionate farmhand feverishly scribbling in his journal in red ink; and the sardonic farmer's daughter punishing her parents for their cozy simplicity. They regard the grassy valley surrounded by black, volcanic mountains as an oppressive landscape of bitter defeat. Sól absorbs their painful secrets, but not their attitude, realizing that the rugged, breathtaking terrain contains both harsh reality and magical possibility.