Teenage female friendship is frequently plundered for emotional gold in cinema, think The Virgin Suicides, My Summer Of Love, Thirteen. To truly depict the intricacies and intensity, the fraught and delicate nature of that dynamic without descending into melodrama, is tricky. But wow, does Young Sophie Bell dive headfirst and swim around in that melodramatic pool.
Sophie (Felice Jankell) and Alice (Hedda Stiernstedt) are best friends. We’re given the Cliffnotes of this deep bond; here they are wearing the same dress, there they are running happily together on a hillside, look at all these smiling childhood pictures of them! They’re planning a high school graduation trip to Berlin, but Alice’s enthusiasm seems disproportionate to Sophie’s muted assent. Alice has no other plans besides getting to Berlin, while her bestie has surreptitiously applied for university locally in Sweden.
They are cookie-cutter moulds of the mundane ‘bad girl’ and ‘good girl’ dichotomy. Alice is the rebel, found skinny-dipping at the post-grad beach bonfire and sucking face with her leather jacket-clad boyfriend. Sophie is literally virginal, doe-eyed and pastel dressed, batting eyelashes at long-term crush Arvid, who’s back in town during uni holidays. This stale interpretation of female friendship only descends further into clichés after a heated argument brought on by Alice’s inexplicable jealousy. She leaves for Berlin without Sophie. A month later (rough estimate, a LOT happens in this film in an indeterminate period), the police show up at Sophie’s door. One histrionic falling-to-the-floor-wailing scene later, we are informed that Alice is dead – she committed suicide.
Sophie’s disbelief leads her to Berlin. Alice lived with the last ironic hipsters left in Berlin, if their faux-spectacled fluoro late noughties garb is any indication. Sophie immerses herself in her dead friend’s life – she moves into Alice’s old room, takes over her job cleaning houses, and begins a little love affair with a Swedish housemate. That latter storyline includes a cringe-worthy scene where the couple draw on each other’s backs with a paintbrush that is introduced with the truly orgasmic line, “it’s made from squirrel hair” – you’re quivering in anticipatory delight I’m sure.
The film is written and styled as if everyone involved had their phones open on a Tumblr account and were yelling instructions like, “more flower crowns!” and “you know what goes with glitter? More glitter!” It’s the perfect Instagram feed – sights and sounds doused in pretty colours, all style and no substance. Young Sophie Bell turns Berlin into the backdrop for a feature-length photoshoot, with a dash of teenage angst. It’s visually hypnotic, which almost makes up for the fraying strings holding the story together. Almost.
Alice’s ghost occasionally haunts Sophie in the city, especially with repeated visits to the bridge from which she jumped.1 The plot tries to insert a hint of murder mystery, throwing in Klaus, the suspicious patriarch of one of the wealthy homes Sophie has begun cleaning in Alice’s stead. He clearly had a more than friendly relationship with Alice, but his character is never fleshed out into more than a two-dimensional, handsomely intimidating figure.
Credit where it’s due, Felice Jankell gives Sophie’s coquettish demeanour an air of hidden strength, and she does her best to play off Hedda Stiernstedt’s manic Alice with empathy. Young German actress Jella Haase is a particular joy as Lisa, the fun-loving housemate who tries to pull Sophie out of her grief and into the Berlin nightlife, only to reveal her own guilt-ridden sadness in Alice’s demise.
Young Sophie Bell misses the main point though: There’s a big difference between recreational drug use with a spot of clubbing, and the kind of depressive state that leads to suicidal tendencies. After investing time and energy in the story, it’s a cop-out to basically be left with the message of ‘sometimes teenagers kill themselves.’