A prodigal son and a Syrian refugee are thrown together in the Finnish countryside in this spare, intense gay romance.
There’s an admirable quiet intensity to “A Moment in the Reeds,” a first feature by London-based Mikko Makela set in his native Finland. Superficially similar to “God’s Own Country,” this bittersweet tale of attraction between a prodigal son and a refugee worker is both a more straightforward romance for much of its runtime and a sadder one in the end. It’s sold to a few territories already while touring primarily gay fests.
Thin, blond Leevi (Janne Puustinen) has reluctantly returned home to help father Juoko (Mika Melender) fix up the family summer cottage before it’s put on the market. Though they’re doing their best to be civil, it’s a strained reunion: Leevi clearly still blames his taciturn dad for murky circumstances around his now-deceased mother’s departure long ago, while Juoko can find scant common ground with a gay son who’s run off to Paris to study literature.
Leevi isn’t the handy type, so his father has grudgingly hired a laborer through an agency to help with the renovation. To his intense annoyance and his son’s amusement, that turns out to be Tareq (Boodi Kabbani), a handsome, hirsute Syrian refugee who not only doesn’t speak Finnish (yet) but otherwise proves to have more in common with Leevi than with his employer — he’s an architect doing manual labor just temporarily, until he’s improved language and other skills in his newly adopted nation. Thus Juoko is stuck having to use his son as translator, since the two younger men are both English-fluent.
When Dad has to deal with a business emergency, leaving the others alone overnight, Leevi raids the cottage beer supply, and a sweaty, shirtless summer evening on the porch turns into a mutually passionate night inside. Later, Juoko’s extended absence — his financial woes are forcing the cottage’s sale — allows time for feelings beyond the physical plane to be expressed. Though there are a couple of fairly explicit scenes, one of the most impressive aspects of “Moment” is how utterly convincing the leads are in persuading us of their characters’ shared ardor in less overtly sexual moments. If these actors are faking that affection, they’re doing a pretty amazing job.
The effectively spare, apparently semi-improvised screenplay (a credit notes “additional dialogue by the cast”) deals with various forms of repression, leaving some significant matters only glancingly discussed. Neither Leevi nor Juoko is inclined to articulate all the discordant issues between them, and newcomer Tareq has left one complicated situation for another — fleeing persecution and war but still tethered to the cultural norms of the family left behind, for whom he has to live a closeted “double life.” Any future he might have with Leevi (who has no intention of leaving Paris) would be difficult to orchestrate, at best. In any case, that proves irrelevant when the narrative closes on notes of abrupt conflict that are perhaps not fully satisfying but feel true enough in their raw-wound nature.
“A Moment in the Reeds” is deliberately spare in all departments, heightening impact through restraint. Thus there’s no musical scoring at all until past the two-thirds mark; Iikka Salminen’s cinematography is plain at first, waxing more lyrical as emotions grow warmer. Other contributions likewise turn budgetary limitations into a virtue. The small cast is expert, suggesting a lot of rehearsal time was put into deepening characterizations. This may not be an ambitious or particularly original film, but more first features would benefit from a modest narrative scale explored with this much detail and assurance.