Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 123 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for nudity, drunkenness, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Swedish Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Amazon link

Astrid Lindgren wrote more than 30 children’s books and is the fourth most translated children’s writer in the world. To American audiences, her best-known creation was Pippi Longstocking, born one day when Lindgren’s daughter was home from school sick and asking for a story to help her feel better.

The Swedish-language (with English subtitles) biopic Becoming Astrid implies that the film’s narrative will reveal how Lindgren became one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors, and that fans of her books will be able to connect more deeply with her after seeing the this 2018 drama. Well, they can . . . but not as directly as one might imagine.

There’s no way to describe the essence of the film without spoilers, but I’ll warn everyone right now that Becoming Astrid is for adults only. There is frontal female nudity and a plot that revolves around an illicit affair between a 16-year-old girl and a man her father’s age. This biopic begins with a 90-something Lindgren opening birthday wishes from thousands of readers worldwide, with one fourth grade class sending an audio tape that she plays. From time to time as we watch a flashback and presumed recollections of a significant period in the author’s life, circa 1924-31, we hear a voiceover of that tape, reminding us of the influence that Lindgren had on young people. Without that tape, there’s no connection between what happens on the screen and the success that Lindgren would become.

There are many reasons to watch this film. It’s beautifully shot and directed, and fans of author biopics get a compelling narrative that seems to run absolutely counter to expectations one might have for the life story of a beloved children’s book author—a film in which we can perceive a change in Lindgren’s demeanor. Early on she’s the ugly duckling who’s never asked to dance, but gets on the dance floor anyway, crazily moving so that her two long braids fly all over the place. She’s a good speller who had an essay about her family’s farm in Smaland published in the local paper—one reason why the editor hires her as an intern/secretary/writer. But throughout the course of a life that turns hard, we can see the optimism and energy flag slightly. Later it will reappear and reignite her imagination as she begins to write children’s books, but there is no writing of children’s books in this film. This is the down period in her life, one that no doubt shaped her resolve and explains the bond she feels with children. 

Alba August is a revelation as Astrid Lindgren, a charismatic and compelling presence in every scene, no matter what emotion might be called for. Her transformation from girl to woman and her portrayal of the conflicts in Lindgren’s heart are nothing short of phenomenal.

But the title is misleading. This is a different kind of coming-of-age story that has very little to do with writing and everything to do with family rhythms and dynamics. It’s a prodigal son story, a finding-your-way in the dark kind of story. That sounds pretentious, but Becoming Astrid is, as The New York Times said, “refreshingly candid.” We get glimpses of a Swedish family in the 1920s as they work together on the farm, worship together in a little church up a grassy hill, and cut loose in moments of family fun and frivolity. We get equally candid glimpses of a relationship from its barely flirtatious beginnings to an ending that’s surprisingly civil.

There’s an undercurrent of warmth and stoic suffering in Becoming Astrid that carries the film every bit as much as August’s winning performance and Erik Molberg Hansen’s lyrical cinematography. Just don’t expect a film that directly explains how Lindgren became a best-selling and beloved children’s book author. This is a compelling backstory without a pointed connection to the future . . . except for those children’s testimonials inserted among the birthday wishes.

Language: A few minor swearwords, but that’s it

Sex: Extended scenes of full frontal female nudity and a sex scene with implied thrusting

Violence: Nothing here

Adult Situations: Some characters smoke throughout the film, and there is some drinking and drunkenness; a scandal results from an adulterous affair and pregnancy

Takeaway: If Alba August makes an English language picture, I suspect we’ll see career take off—she’s that good