The anticlimactic child in Patrik, Age 1.5 isn’t as nightmarish as Rosemary’s Baby or the man-eating wooden branch-sucking-on-a-pacifier in Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik, but it sets off just as much anxiety. The problem here is that well-to-do gay couple Göran (Gustaf Skarsgård) and Sven (Torkel Petersson) were expecting a one-and-a-half-year-old baby, but due to a typo in a Social Services letter, they are actually given a 15-year-old homophobe of a kid from the Swedish ghetto with a history of arrests involving knifes.
While no-nonsense, hotheaded Sven tries to kick the kid out of their brand new suburban home right away, the more maternal Goran is open to bonding with Patrik until Social Services reopens the following Tuesday. The couple’s recently adopted neighborhood is peopled with straight couples that acknowledge the gayness of the newcomers with a polite smile yet raise their children to ring the gays’ bell every half hour to yell “homos!” and run. Patrik quickly becomes the neighborhood darling with those needing cheap gardening labor, and, ironically, a victim of the kids’ “homos!”-shouting, but Sven isn’t having any of it, causing the couple’s romance to crack.
While the film’s premise suggests homo-normativity as the ultimate antidote for human loneliness and misery (“Everybody needs a family and I’m going to make sure you get one,” Goran tells Patrik at one point), its characters ultimately realize that the normative panacea, homo or hetero, is a promise too costly to bear.
It is, interestingly, hard to tell how much of Patrik’s unsuitableness lies in how old he is or in where he is from. While Goran and Sven’s neighbors are out to boycott the couple’s journey toward normativity, the men seem to be applying the same phobias of contact with otherness right at home. Patrik, the teenager, is kept locked in the room previously set up for Patrik, the baby, where he is surveilled at all times through the video-monitoring device installed for the imaginary baby’s safety. It’s fascinating to watch the anxiety over difference play out in parallel ways in both heterocentric public spaces and inside the queer household. That the feared external monster is named “homo” out in the driveway and “delinquent” around the dinning room table shows how the perpetual inadequacy of those-unlike-me may change costumes and captions but emerges from the same malaise, the same unknowing.
Patrik, Age 1.5 has the kind of fairy-tale aesthetic akin to Ma Vie en Rose, another film about the hypocritical intolerance of European suburbia. But director Ella Lemhagen’s main characters feel too real to float away with its colorful whimsy. Goran and Sven are no branché Ken dolls programmed to hit the gym and the bathhouse between their fabulous jobs and their slickly decorated loft. Sven has a beer belly, an unhealthy obsession with whiskey and bad country music, and his tattoos are wearing away. His dreams of domesticity are nuanced and conflicted. Goran’s emotional needs are just as contradicting: Does he love Sven, Patrik, or just anybody who promises to stick around? He deals with desperation the way Julianne Moore dealt with her baked cake in The Hours: destroying the painstakingly constructed.
One of Patrik, Age 1.5‘s most valuable surprises is the way it portrays not only what we do with difference (vilifying it so we can kick it off our lawn), but how it teases out difference from the supposed sameness of a same-sex couple. Goran and Sven aren’t reduced to two similar halves of a lumped-together (gay) whole. They each have very different ways of being in the world and dealing with its series of impediments, which Lemhagen captures with a restrained delicateness that recalls both the sincerity of Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story and the gravitas of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Goran and Sven are a relief for gay couples everywhere who can finally see on screen the distinctive existential dimensions, at once matching and disjunctive, between tops and bottoms that go way beyond sexual positions.