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Berlinale Review

ALWAYS AMBER

A kaleidoscopic collage of various video formats that beats in synch with the restless heart of its teenage protagonist

Jakob Åsell on Hannah Reinikainen & Lia Hietala’s ‘Always Amber’ (2020)

The buzzing sound of a hair clipper is a recurring theme in the Swedish documentary Always Amber / Altid Amber, as non-binary teenager Amber continually shapeshifts through experiments with bold hairstyles and make-up. But is Amber truly ready to change more than that? “How much do I have to change because society doesn’t change fast enough? I can’t change others, I can only change myself”, they say while considering gender reassignment surgery at age 17.

Told from Burger King booths, bathtubs and messy kitchens, Always Amber is the story of every teenager, and simultaneously, it’s really not at all. “We were two freaks who didn’t fit in anywhere, but together we were a great fit”, says Amber about Sebastian, the only other non-binary student at their high school. We follow Amber and Sebastian’s experimental years as part of a new generation of inner-city Stockholm kids, open to the idea of fluid gender identities. Filtered through Shapchat, Instagram videos, and observational footage, this punky portrait embodies three years of transition, parties and teenage angst.

Capturing their trial and error process of forming a teenage identity through a restless collage of various video formats, the film’s experimental style has a strong sense of identity. Although the zoomed-in smartphone footage can feel jarring and look grainy on a big screen, the heartfelt message of acceptance always shines through. Through rapid shots of 90’s home video footage and a seductive punk rock score by Stockholm-based musician “ShitKid”, Always Amber finds its own unique rhythm in tune with the anxious beat of restless teenage hearts.

The production company Story AB has been a megaphone for talented new voices and a creative force in Swedish documentary film for the past twenty years, and feature film debutants Lia Hietala and Hannah Reinikainen don’t deviate from that path. One has a documentary background, and the other comes from theatre and fiction, but they both share an eye for intimate moments while leaving part of the authorship in Amber’s social media savvy hands.

At its best, Always Amber is a tender and unfiltered (save for its own snapchat-filters) love letter to that period of youth where love and friendship mean everything. At times the film feel’s unsure of where it’s heading, but in the end, so is Amber. During the Q&A that followed the world premiere at the 70th Berlinale, a member from the audience thanked the filmmakers “for bringing a normalised perspective” on queerness, as opposed to the provocation, although some might feel that a part of queerness is about not being normalised, but this idea wasn’t brought up in the Q&A. While visits to a transgender care clinic plays a part in the story, being heartbroken, smoking cigarettes, finding new friends, and cutting their hair is just as essential to a vehicle of queer representation which the filmmakers themselves seems to have longed for in their own teens.

Always Amber screened as part of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.

Jakob Åsell

By Jakob Åsell

Jakob Åsell is a film critic and editor based in Stockholm. He has a BA in Film Studies from Lund University / University of California, Berkeley, and a BA in Film Editing from Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is an alumnus of the Berlinale 2020 Talent Press and host of the Swedish interview podcast i Hollywood.