Movies which touch on hippie communes almost always take one of two approaches to what’s now basically a historical phenomenon. Either they portray participants as essentially silly creatures wacked out on drugs and sex (and often involved in petty crime), or (as is now no longer fashionable) show them as wonderfully idealistic and pure. The marvelous thing about Lukas Moodysson’s “Together” is that it falls into neither of these traps. It’s an utterly humane portrait of a Swedish commune in the mid-1970s, with characters who are at once shabbily lovable and charmingly flawed. It’s a insightful, compassionate film which depicts its subjects without condescension and with warmth and affection; their failings are closely observed, to be sure–often humorously and occasionally powerfully–but the individuals themselves are never cruelly ridiculed. As a result, there’s a genuineness in the emotions on display in the picture that’s at once touching and amusing.
“Together” opens with a decision by Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), a typically bourgeois Stockholm housewife, to leave husband Rolf (Mikael Nykvist), who’s just struck her, taking along her two children, the serious Eva (Emma Samuelsson) and the sensitive Stefan (Sam Kessel). The only place she has to go, however, is into a commune where her gentle, good-hearted brother Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten) resides. Goran is a kind of saintly innocent, who gives extemporaneous speeches about how oatmeal represents the blending of individuals into the social whole and even tries to accept his partner Lena’s (Anja Lundqvist) occasional bouts in bed with dour radical Erik (Olle Sarri) in a magnanimous spirit of socialist sharing. Also in the house are sharp-tongued Lasse (Ola Norell), his erstwhile, now defiantly lesbian wife Anna (Jessica Liedberg), and gay Klas (Shanti Roney), who’s infatuated with Lasse, as well as another child, a kid named Tet (after the offensive), who plays games like “Pinochet Torturing People.” Predictably, the entrance of the middle-class Elisabeth, her children and her problems into this company causes strains and difficulties, but the learning experience, as it turns out, is not all on one side; and although the inner circle gives way to small compromises (as when the kids–Tet included–stage a “workers’ protest” for some meat in the hitherto vegetarian environment), the interlopers–including, eventually, Rolf–find their attitudes changed in major ways, too.
It would be unfair to outline too fully the twists and turns both plot and characters take in “Together,” since that would spoil a good deal of the picture’s oddball fun. Suffice it to say that the narrative brings changes not only for the adults, but also for the children, whose pain at the breakup of their family is made more palpable here than in most pictures about separation and divorce. Stefan’s attempts to reconnect with his alcoholic father are portrayed with honest pathos, and sullen, withdrawn Eva’s friendship with a pudgy local boy, Fredrick (Henrik Lundstrom)–whose parents Margit (Therese Brunnander) and Ragnar (Claes Hartelius) look disapprovingly upon their scruffy neighbors with disdain but who have problems of their own– has a sharpness that’s very affecting.
Throughout Moodysson gives remarkable shading to his characters and brings a touch of magic to the generally realistic milieu he creates. Most films about radicalism in the sixties and seventies, for example, go wild in the wardrobe department; though the recent “Steal This Movie!” was an exception, they ordinarily overdo the costumes so extravagantly that the people come off looking like clowns. “Together” doesn’t make that mistake: the clothes are of the proper period, but they’re kept simple enough to appear unerringly right, just as the dramatics–even in the “big” moments–are restrained and so genuine. Yet the writer-director’s generous, gentle approach leaves room for an ending that, in a lesser picture, would come off as ludicrously obvious but here seems magically appropriate. All the characters engage in an impromptu soccer game in the falling snow, a group activity that symbolizes, in an almost luminous vision, the virtues both of togetherness and of individual effort, of competition and of cooperation–the middle-ground between capitalism and socialism in which human values can truly be appreciated and a sense of family develop among even those who aren’t bound by blood. In its shambling, unaassuming way, “Together” quietly tells us more about relationships than most pictures, whether romantic comedies or stentorian dramas, ever begin to do. It’s a warmhearted little film which–like Goran and his friends–possesses far greater depth than its rather scraggly surface might at first suggest.