Curmudgeons aren’t born, they’re made. That, at least, is the view of Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, based on a popular novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, which endeavors to show how a bright, shy little boy could grow up to be the crotchety tyrant of the neighborhood association, the kind of man who keeps detailed handwritten records of items borrowed by his neighbors and who shouts down cars driving on a pedestrians-only pathway.
In his own mind, Ove (played by Rolf Lassgård as an old man and Filip Berg and Viktor Baagoe in flashbacks) is the last responsible person in the world, the only one left who knows how to install a dishwasher or bleed a radiator and the only one who seems to care about the neighborhood association’s regulations. And as he’s lost his wife and job and everyone is a nuisance to him, Ove decides to rid himself of his burdens by committing suicide.
The problem is that Ove’s neighbors keep getting in the way. No sooner has he placed the noose around his neck than his new next-door neighbor’s terrible driving demands his attention. This becomes the film’s central running gag, with Ove attempting increasingly fastidious methods of killing himself, like covering his entire living room in plastic before blasting himself with a shotgun, only to be foiled by someone knocking at his door needing his help. Despite his determination to off himself, Ove can’t refuse a person in need—suggesting he harbors a deeper connection to his fellow man than he realizes.
This tension between Ove’s misanthropy and his sense of duty is the key to A Man Called Ove’s distinct charm. No stingy, Scrooge-like codger, Ove is rather a man who resents that his rigid sense of responsibility and self-reliance isn’t matched by that of the rest of the world. In fact, in extended flashback sequences that focus heavily on his relationship with his beloved wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), we learn that Ove’s life has been severely impacted by the carelessness of others, and that it’s his past traumas which caused the sensitivity and consideration of his younger self to curdle into misanthropy.
While the flashbacks help to frame Ove’s psychology and, eventually, wring a few tears from the audience, they’re something of a distraction from the film’s main draw: Lassgård’s finely honed performance. As Ove, the actor seethes with perpetual annoyance—which regularly boils over into sputtering rage—at the stupidity of his fellow man, and yet his performance remains compelling, even charming, because it’s undergirded by a fundamental guilelessness. Lassgård renders the flashbacks redundant, as his performance suggests deeper layers to Ove than does the character’s fairly didactic backstory.
Much deeper and funnier are the scenes that match up Ove with his strong-willed Iranian neighbor, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), whose almost aggressive sociability forces him out of his cocoon. Ove, who’s tall, steely, and white, and Parveneh, who’s short, springy, and brown, create a physical counterpoint that finds harmony in their mutual stubbornness. They develop an infectious chemistry that ultimately forms the heart of the film. (The relationship between Ove and his wife, who, despite a charming performance by Engvoll, remains something of a saintly abstraction, is comparatively listless.)
Parveneh becomes a surrogate daughter to Ove and the dispenser of the film’s central lesson: “No one manages completely on their own.” Holm’s script provides a handy subplot to show that Ove has learned this lesson and then piles on multiple endings—including a birth, a near death, and an actual death, all in the space of five minutes—to wring every possible emotion out of Ove’s inevitable transformation from grump to gramps. It’s emotionally manipulative stuff, but Lassgård and Pars make it work, finding a core of humanity even in the most calculating plot machinations.