A child sits on a pile of wood in the forest, arms outstretched.

Sundance Film Review: A New Kind of Wilderness

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: A New Kind of Wilderness
Director: Silje Evensmo Jacobsen

A5 Film
Premiere: 01.19

“Why do we live differently?” 10-year-old Freja Vatne Payne asks her father Nik. It’s the question that drives everything in Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s documentary A New Kind of Wilderness, and other questions grow out of it: How do we spend the brief moments of life we’re allotted? Is there a cleaner, more righteous way to interact with our planet? Is it possible in the modern world to raise a person who thinks and cares about the earth beneath their feet?

A New Kind of Wilderness is the story of the Vatne Paynes, a Norwegian family who live relatively off the grid and self-sustainably on their isolated farm. They grow their food, chop their own wood and they sip freshly-tapped sap from trees in the nearby woods. The three young children are homeschooled. When their mother Maria dies, Nik must sell the farm and integrate the kids into a world and lifestyle they’ve been raised to reject.

It’s a setup that feels primed to highlight the ways the children haven’t been prepared for the modern world, but it’s thankfully, and wisely, more interesting than that. The kids are instantly endearing: They’re eminently good-natured, thoughtful, polite and well-spoken. There are important skills and experiences they’ve missed out on, as good as their parents’ intentions were, but they behave mostly like average children. Seeing them acclimate to the realities of a new home, to school, to television and video games is interesting not for their confusion but for their quickness to adjust.

The story’s emotional conflict is found in their father Nik, who’s not sure how to uphold the life and the values their mother wanted for them, and in their older half-sister Ronja, who’s been living with her own father since their mother’s death. They’re not related by blood, but they’re the two moving forces of the film, both struggling to discern the way forward in the wake of their bereavement.

It’s wonderful, warmly funny and glowingly moving. At times, it’s evocative of the environmentalist spirit and familial warmth of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, and sometimes reminiscent of the late Michael Apted’s decades-spanning and similarly lifestyle-conscious Up series. It’s rare to see a documentary with such narrative cohesion, well-defined characters and arcs of genuine growth. By the end, I simply wished I had more time to spend with this lovely, kind-hearted family. What a beautiful world we live in for people and emotions like these to exist, and what a gift it is to see pieces of them captured on film. –Daniel Kirkham

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.