Reviews Short Narrative

Nimmerland (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Mira-Belle Rose Bryld

Writer: Mira-Belle Rose Bryld

Cast: Katharina Stark, Julia Knöß, Govinda Gabriel

Running time: 15mins

The ever-encroaching forces of a harsh and atomised ‘real world’ mean each generation is expected to outgrow its imagination sooner than the last. With the churn of the market meat-grinder constantly demanding more fresh labour, while the hyper-inflated housing market calls for more stooges to be immiserated for the sake of its growth margins, kids are being tested earlier, and with greater stakes. So, if your toddler’s about to graduate from the crèche, it’s time for them to become a responsible economic actor. Give up on those silly flights of fancy – pretending to live in a kinder, more enjoyable world – and get to planning a fifty-year career that will fund a mortgage, pension (and probably all your healthcare costs).

The problem with this is that the ‘real world’ is built on a form of mass insanity. It is a cruel and nonsensical place, where people with six-figure salaries step over rough-sleepers to get into the office, where the richest man in the world is more committed to slandering people in 280 characters than he is to feeding starving children. If you’re going to make sense of this senseless existence, and keep your own sanity, you’re going to need as much time training your imagination as possible.

Naomi (Katharina Stark) finds herself at a crossroads at the beginning of Nimmerland. A young woman who has recently flown the nest, she is aware of the challenges she is facing – but is reluctant to give up on the comforts of her youthful imagination. One of the ways this is embodied is that she spends most of the movie wearing a literal pair of wings, while casually sliding debt-enforcement letters under her bed. This might explain the English title given by director and writer Mira-Belle Rose Bryld (in English, this film is called Flying Crooked, despite Nimmerland being German for Neverland).

More importantly, however, Naomi’s confused existence is depicted by the lingering presence of Ellen (Julia Knöß). At a fancy-dress party in the film’s opening, Naomi meets a young man dressed as a pirate (Govinda Gabriel), and begins a shy but obviously flirtatious conversation with him – until she notices a ghost drift into frame. Ellen is wearing a white sheet and roller-skates, ominously lurking across the street from them both, having apparently wandered away from the party. Understanding her friend wants to leave, Naomi excuses herself; much to the confusion of Captain Hook.

We should note that Bryld shows a deft touch as a writer and director here; refusing to outright confirm or deny any of the following. But it seems that Ellen is fictitious. This is not only implied by the fact the pirate did not seem to notice her, but the delirious, fantastical bicycle ride home from the party – during which Naomi and Ellen pass by crowds of strange, masked creatures. These include March hares boxing and making out with each other, and a commuting crocodile. Naomi’s mind has evidently gone into overdrive at the moment Ellen has shown up.

Playing into the delightful absurdity of the scene, a soundtrack crafted from haunting electronica and dreamlike glockenspiel solos sees us drift through this bizarre night alongside our characters. Meanwhile, Julia König’s beautiful black-and-white camera work captures some remarkable depth and darkness, both at the party, and during this hallucinatory sweep through the evening ride.  

When the pair arrive home, Naomi finds another letter suggesting she is deeper in the red – but Ellen (now without the white sheet, but still with skates) snatches it before she can read it, and adds it to the pile under the bed. “Crocodile food!” she exclaims, in another reference to some shared childhood dream inspired by Peter Pan. Following this, Naomi attempts to change a lightbulb – possibly the most symbolic bane of all adult life – but Ellen again intervenes, challenging her to a ‘sword fight’ for having dared speak to a pirate. As the night progresses, Naomi becomes increasingly aware of the problems this behaviour will pose her. It seems as though the pair must finally part, and Naomi must ‘straighten up and fly right’.

This worried me. Such a conclusion would be thoroughly depressing – not to mention suggesting that, actually, getting kids to give up on dreaming early is necessary for them to survive late capitalism. Perhaps I might have had more faith in Bryld’s writing – her less-is-more approach sensibly allowing us to fill in gaps where a more heavy-handed artist might have flooded us with over-exposition – but I have seen enough films blow it in the final act to trust anyone so easily…

Happily, I was wrong. While it is still tinged with sadness – Nimmerland’s climax is ambiguous enough to suggest the lesson is not nearly so cut and dried. In the final moments, Naomi finally gets round to changing that lightbulb. But having struggled to do so earlier, the plug dangling just out of reach, she is able to this time – her height boosted by putting on the absent Ellen’s roller-skates.

I can’t stress enough, readers: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. But in a film where we have been asked to suspend our disbelief in so many stranger ways already, it’s easy enough to overlook my health and safety concerns in the world of the movie. Instead, what’s important is that Naomi’s lesson is not that she has to sever herself from her childhood. It remains with her, to help her survive the nonsensical nightmare of adulthood. In that context, the song over the credits – the gorgeous Last Happy End by Alice Rose – couldn’t feel more appropriate.

This is a sweet, smartly realised short film – not so much about coming of age, as learning how to apply the things learned from a healthy childhood to adult life. ‘Growing up’ is not about abandoning our capacity to imagine, it is about how we adapt that capacity to help us survive in a world that is hostile and absurd in its own right. A story reflecting that can come across as heavy-handed and preachy at the worst of times, but Mira-Belle Rose Bryld’s film wisely leaves enough to our own imaginations to pull off a compelling and compassionate take on it.

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