We can tell something is amiss the moment Nina (Maren Eggert) smiles and reminds her son Lars (Jona Levin Nicolai) that they only have “ten days left.” The way she says it carries a shared understanding. That he knew she’d be swamped with rehearsals gearing up for the concert she’s conducting. That he agreed to give her that space and time. So why does he look so pained? Why does her inability to not answer her phone make him so angry? What has changed? What hasn’t she realized yet?
Writer-director Hanna Antonina Wojcik Slak wastes little time providing the answer once Not a Word moves from their home to school. Hidden behind the group of boys Lars approaches after being ignored yet again by his mother is a photo memorial for a student. We don’t need details to know it was a tragic death. Whether suicide, accident, illness, or murder––one should die so young. Add a concerned teacher desperately trying to get Nina’s attention because they “need to talk” and it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. If you’re able to open your eyes and see.
The draw here is that Nina is that person. Her attention is obviously divided, but she can still tell that Lars is pulling away. Enough to admit to her coworkers that Mahler’s 5th Symphony isn’t actually a matter of life or death? No. Maybe if Lars makes the first move, but he won’t. And the last thing Nina wants to do is pry too hard too quickly. So she waits, giving him the space he was supposed to give her––convenient, too, since focusing on herself is what she wants to do anyway. Unfortunately, as the silence between them grows, so too does Lars’ sense that he’s all alone.
What happens is almost inevitable. And as long as everyone is too busy and too scared to consider the truth of the act, they can all pretend it was an accident and get back to normal. Except, of course, that Nina is on a deadline with replacements and competitors breathing down her neck. Can she get away for a weekend to try and repair their broken relationship knowing it may have fractured too far? Is Lars willing to look past the continued reality that he’s still playing second fiddle to her career despite what occurred to help in that goal? Or is this ever-intensifying “vacation” on the water merely a venue for them to finally lose everything?
I don’t use “intensify” lightly, either. Slak embraces the tension connecting these characters, highlighting Nicolai’s glowering and Eggert’s concern while every potential moment of reconciliation is interrupted by a ringing phone or poor choice of accusatory words. She even pipes in some of the classical music we know is always at the forefront of Nina’s mind––adding extra weight to the drama while assuring us no words are going to be spoken because neither knows what words to say. Because if she can’t shut off her phone to listen, how can he risk the crippling vulnerability it takes to speak?
Does the suspense ratchet itself up a bit too far at times? Perhaps. The details that are eventually revealed about that aforementioned student’s tragic death will have you thinking very dark thoughts––just as they do for Nina. And while that means you have to brace yourself every time Lars pulls away and disappears right as Nina approaches a cliff, you can only give into that anticipation so many times before you grow numb to it. That doesn’t mean my investment waned, though; I simply learned to avoid letting the film trick me into always thinking the worst.
Doing that should make the whole resonate more because you can separate yourself from the experience to delve deeper into the characters. It’s a testament to Slak’s craft that the atmosphere proves so palpable, but sometimes it can distract from the nuanced performances beneath. Thankfully, characters prevail in pushing plot to the background and making good on their promise of conquering their anxieties about trusting each other. If they can get out of their own way, they might just be able to recognize what matters most.
Not a Word premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.