Beartown

4 out of 5

Directed by: Peter Grönlund

A familiar story (unfortunately, given the content), but one told with very impressive succinctness, generally not seen in prestige TV mini-series, leveraging that with its sober look at its subject matter to deliver something very powerful.

Without knowing the focus of Nordic show Beartown, the first episode would very much suggest that it’s going to be an underdog, beast-to-beauty-esque sports tale: ex-hockey player Peter (Ulf Stenberg) returns to his eponymous hometown on the promise of getting to coach their local adult hockey team. Strong-headed and perhaps seeking some of the fame from his NHL days, Peter dismisses the poorly performing team and forces his way onto coaching the more promising high school team, which includes notable player Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufåker), the son of his rival from back-in-the-day. Peter shakes things up dramatically, inciting the town’s ire. His home life is good but not perfect, as he’s upended his wife’s job to make this move, and there’re some past tragedies in the family’s life he willfully ignores. All of the ingredients are there for Peter to learn some good ol’ life lessons about valuing something yadda yadda, bonding with his team while he bonds with his family, probably losing some important games before coming back for a win. Right?

…Except there’s that cold open of Peter’s daughter, Maya (Miriam Ingrid), chasing Kevin through the snow with a shotgun. So we know that something else is going to go on. The inclusion of this scene is a bit puzzling, and I’d have to guess it was only added to counter the first episode setup, as there’s really not much else to indicate what’s to come.

Kevin has his own struggles at own, with a commandeering father, and finds himself drawn – but playing it cool – to Maya, who treats him less like the local sports star and more like a regular dude. He has a girlfriend; she travels in different circles; but we see the looks they share. There’s a hockey team party after a win, and Maya scores an invite. She ditches her friend at the party, and she and Kevin maneuver their way to being alone, and then into his bedroom… The opening scene quickly starts to have context, though we’ll need to see, across a few more episodes, how things get to that point.

Director Peter Grönlund portrays the assault Maya experiences, and everything thereafter, with the same steady eye as that opening episode. There’s no indulgence here; no baiting; no painting people as one-dimensional cads or heroes. We’ve seen these stories many times – the backlash Maya finds herself subjected to at school, and from the town, when she decides to come forward with her accusation; the wavering belief / disbelief of “what happened” from those who should be closest to her; and the closing-of-ranks that happens are relative celebrity, in this case a sports team. Things might be changing for the better in 2021, as I write this, but that surely – alas – doesn’t mean these exact same occurrences aren’t happening in different forms, all the time, and Beartown’s greatest strength is in not taking a clean path in navigating that. It allows it to get messy, but again, presents that in a controlled manner.

Writers Linn Gottfridsson, Antonia Pyk, and Anders Weidemann also do an amazing job of giving every character a unique voice, and carefully add backstory details in that help to inform their various personalities (and positions with what occurs) without dwelling on them. While some of these details may feel a little overt, the series doesn’t wallow in them as subplots, keeping the focus mostly on Maya; the world and people around her fully formed to support her emotions. Ingrid, Dufåker, and Stenberg (and others) all then do an equally amazing job at bringing those words to life, the teen actors especially finding exactly the right tone to make their characters wholly believable.

The cold open still feels like a bit of a reach, even once the whole show has been witnessed; an afterthought to keep people watching. And while the compression of exterior details is ultimately a good thing, Peter’s character arc feels perhaps a bit too overstuffed and thus rushed – he ends up having a total emotional overhaul in one episode, and it unfortunately doesn’t feel quite “earned.” Thankfully, the writing in the scenes after that, and Stenberg’s performance, do a lot to smooth this over.

An excellent, affecting story.