Sweet Land may be the least objectionable film ever made. It's as though a team of researchers scoured the countryside to see what people objected to, removed those items from the universal list of all things, and then made a movie with what was left over. There is a brief glimpse of bare buttocks in the film, but I think that's there to satisfy the people who are offended by excessive prudery.
The film switches between three time periods: the late '60s, when elderly Inge (Lois Smith) is seeing to the funeral of her husband, Olaf; the early '20s, when Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) has just arrived in America; and the present, when Inge's grandson Lars (Stephen Pelinski) must decide whether or not to sell the family farm.
Most of the story occurs in the '20s, and I can't say anything bad about it, because, as noted above, there is absolutely nothing to object to. Inge arrives in America from Germany in order to marry Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee), a Norwegian immigrant who has arranged for the delivery of a wife.
But things go awry when the local Scandinavian Americans learn that Inge is from Germany, which at the time was kind of like ordering a mail-order bride and having Osama bin Laden show up in a veil.
So the minister (John Heard) refuses to perform the wedding ceremony, and the film acquires a plot: Inge cannot live with Olaf, in spite of the fact that their names are "Inge" and "Olaf," and really, how freaking cute is that: "Inge and Olaf." Wouldn't you totally invite them over for coffee just so you could repeatedly say "Inge, Olaf, Olaf, Inge"?
But the minister will have none of this perfection. Instead, Inge winds up staying with Olaf's friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming) and Frandsen's wife, Brownie (Alex Kingston), who have nine children and even more debt and even more sex.
While Frandsen and Brownie procreate and accrue interest and penalties, Inge longs to be with Olaf, who she doesn't really know, but who's pretty hot. Plus, Inge's a virgin and wants to feel the stirring of the loins that she's read about it her nondenominational religious literature.
And so it goes.
Xenophobia and love and glowing fields of grain dominate the story, which, even if it doesn't have something for everyone, at least has nothing that would impede anyone from watching it.
Because I'm an arthritic, angry, middle-age film critic, I struggled to dislike something about this film. Here's what I came up with: I hate the lighting. It's very even, and everything has a golden glow to it, which, in the hands of a master, can be sort of magical, but cinematographer David Tumblety is more of a journeyman, and he winds up producing overly flat skin tones. Basically, everyone looks like they just took a bath in Maybelline Wonder Finish.
Also, the fact that the film begins with the story of Olaf's death makes it clear that he and Inge are going to get together, which is the central tension of the 1920s section of the film. So when we skip back in time, we already know that everything's going to be all right.
I can see the appeal of this: People don't actually like to feel tension, so when they encounter it in a plot, they find it mildly unpleasant. On the other hand, if there's no tension in the story, then it's dull. So as a compromise, writer/director Ali Selim both gives the tension and eliminates it by giving away the ending. As a result, though, he needs another ending that isn't revealed at the beginning, and that comes from the story of Inge's grandson's decision on whether or not he should sell the farm.
But the whole story is about Olaf and Inge's lifelong struggle to maintain and claim their few acres of land. So, I don't know, let's just say that at the end of this beautiful, sentimental love story, the farm is sold to an evil megacorporation that produces deep-fried kitten burgers. Because that's likely.
I will say that Sweet Land, which has received mostly stealth release over the last year or so, is one of the best-reviewed movies in quite some time. But because its release has been so minimal, it actually hasn't gotten a lot of reviews. Like, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the St. Paul Pioneer Press both loved it. Since the film takes place in Minnesota, that's kind of like when you ask your mom if you're pretty, and she tells you that yes, you're the prettiest girl in the world.
On the other hand, newspapers that are probably run by cabals of homosexual terrorists, like The New York Times and The Village Voice, have also given it good reviews, but I think they've been trying to pick up sales among the Midwestern farmer demographic lately.
So you should totally see this film if you long for the Hallmark specials of the '70s or if you have a lot of Holly Hobbie products or you own a plow horse named "Buddy." Or really, if you have a human heart. If you got one of those baboon heart transplants that were so popular with the neo-Pagans back in the '90s, or if your heart is simply made of stone, as is that of your average film critic, then you probably won't love it. But you can't really hate it, because that would be wrong.