TIFF 2019: Disco

A compassionate yet exhausting display of mental illness and fundamentalist religion
Disco is Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s second feature Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED
Disco is Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s second feature Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

Disco is Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s second feature film, and the Norwegian director managed to create a thumping, flashing treatise on cult-like religious devotion.

The film stars the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2019 Rising Star Josefine Frida, and follows her character Mirjam through trials of dance and faith alike. These dance competitions are somewhere between a gymnastics floor routine and Toddlers and Tiaras, as we open on a glittery compilation of dancers of many ages set to a strident electronic song.

Our first moment with Mirjam is a long shot of her barely-faltering smile as she waits to compete. It’s eerie, and although she doesn’t smile often in the film, the forced, labored effect never fades. This also immediately introduces us to one of Syversen’s most employed techniques — the long take. We spend enough time on Mirjam’s bruising smile so that we can note each individual piece of glitter on her face.

Mirjam is active in her church, a shiny millennial rebranding of Christianity called Freedom. Her stepfather speaks in the services often, a kind of Justin-Timberlake-knockoff pastor. Mirjam’s entire family, including her younger sister, is consumed by Freedom.

This is a highly fundamentalist institution, although the pink neon lights and pounding club music attempts to create a gauzy overlay. Syversen draws a comparison between the highly-athletic and performative dance sequences and the extended scenes of monologuing by Mirjam’s stepfather, suggesting the mental gymnastics required in both contexts.

Through long sections of the film that are spent listening to speakers at Freedom, Syversen lets her audience ponder the content themselves and hone in on the specific way that Mirjam’s church will fail her.

Mirjam has a spectral pain from a childhood incident that her mother refuses to tell her about, as well as anxiety and an eating disorder. She begins to crumble as the exertion required between her dance and church performances starts to eat her up inside. Frida is remarkable in her performance, staring deep down the lens of the camera and willing the audience to recognize her ache.

Frida is highly internalized, seldom speaking during her scenes at the beginning, and almost never raising her voice by its end. We are watching a woman drown in her own mind, and Frida plays it as if she’s grieving, over God, sure, but mostly over herself. When Mirjam plugs into recorded sermons from American mega-churches, the searching in her eyes and soul is detectable.

When she begins fainting during her competitions, her mother and stepfather insist that her faith is wavering — if she only believed harder, trusted harder, she would feel better. The shame of her faith being questioned and her neglected personal issues push her on a dangerous path toward a more fanatical religious cult.

Syversen’s sustained scenes of church sermons are cut together with personal meetings Mirjam has with her uncle. The inundation of religious rhetoric is suffocating, with Syversen expertly creating the sense that there is literally nowhere else to turn.

By putting the audience in the same position as Mirjam, Syversen composes a compassionate, if exhausting view of mental illness and fundamentalist religion. Watching Disco is watching someone be betrayed by her family and her faith. The failings of the institution to consider any different method of coping is clear. Syversen is not exactly grinding an axe against religion, but creates a flashing neon sign that warns all those who enter.

As the film builds to a clanging finale, her point is made. No one can survive on faith alone.

Disco hits theatres September 7.

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