The second recent wide release film this year depicting the terrorist attack on Utøya in 2011 (the former being Netflix’s vastly superior 22 July directed by Paul Greengrass), Utøya July 22, is a film that works at cross purposes. The film is half an earnest attempt to give a voice to the young victims and survivors of the attack and half an attempt to make a strongly themed fictional horror film inspired by them. While neither of these goals are crass the way they are blended here, in my opinion, most definitely is.
The film follows Kaja, a fictional young woman, through the attack as she tries to survive and find her sister. With the exception of the opening, the film is told in real time and is unedited, shot in a single long take. Although this technique isn't as distracting as it often is and quickly became easily ignored, there are sometimes when being able to edit your footage becomes useful. It wasn’t as bad as something like Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but neither was it as good as Victoria. It also means that they had to restage the attack in real time and something about that feels wrong to me.
I did appreciate the relative lack of onscreen violence and the fact that the terrorist is not granted the dignity of a name or face, somewhere that this film clearly rejects the approach offered in the Greengrass film.
The film is worth seeing in one respect and that is that it does the one thing I felt was missing from 22 July, and that lent a voice to the victims as well as the survivors. There are many long dialogue scenes during the attack that feels natural and flesh out the people and they are reasonably well written and well-acted. However, some of the decisions and uses of license feel crass considering how close the material is. In order to make the film they wanted to make in a way that I could get behind, they couldn’t have called it Utøya July 22, there can be similarities, but you can’t set it on Utøya, you can’t use the date, you can’t stick this close to the facts and then tell a fictional story. I am told that this was made in collaboration with the survivors, I don’t know how many of them have seen the film or whether they were pleased with it, but I can only give my own verdict and in my opinion this film makes many of the mistakes I commended Paul Greengrass’ greatly superior 22 July for not making.
You can make a horror film where a group of young progressives are confronted with the brutal nihilism of a fascist ideology indifferent to the sanctity of human life and actively seeking to crush their principles of love, multiculturalism and mutual respect (see Green Room or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). You can also make a respectful, mature and important docu-drama about a real atrocity that actually took place only a short time ago (see 22 July or even Peterloo). But, in my opinion, they can’t be the same thing.