Spoiler-Free Film Review: “Natatorium” (SXSW)

March 14, 2024

Written by Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry is the Film Festival Editor for Horror Fuel; all film festival related queries and announcements should be sent to him at josephperry@gmail.com. He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Gruesome Magazine, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.

Writer/director Helena Stefansdottir’s Icelandic thriller Natatorium is the type of film where you just know that something is off from the onset, and the mystery as to what exactly is happening keeps you wrapped up until the climactic reveal. The dark family drama at the heart of this feature is thoroughly gripping.

With dreams of traveling the world in a performance troupe, 18-year-old Lilja (Ilmur María Arnarsdóttir) stays at the home of her grandmother Áróra (Elin Petersdottir) and grandfather Grimur (Valur Freyr Einarsson) for an audition being held in their town. She has arrived at their home without announcing it in advance to her father Magnús (Arnar Dan Kristjánsson). He calls his sister Vala (Stefanía Berndsen) and asks her to check in on Lilja, and viewers learn right away that the older siblings have problems with Lilja staying there. The titular swimming pool seems to be one of the big reasons for their concerns. Áróra’s other son Kalli (Jónas Alfreð Birkisson) — Vala’s twin brother — is bedridden and in poor health and though Vala feels he should be hospitalized, Áróra insists on taking care of him herself. Familial mysteries and disturbing histories slowly come to light, bringing danger to the surface, as well.

The performances from the ensemble cast are all stellar, with characters running a wide range of emotions, some keeping feelings bubbling under the surface while others act out more powerfully. Kerttu’s splendid cinematography and Jacob Groth’s entrancing score are also major reasons for Natatorium being so captivating. 

Stefansdottir has crafted a superb genre effort that takes its time unfolding its secrets but that simultaneously holds viewers in a tight grip from its first act. Apprehension and disquiet hang in the cinematic air throughout Natatorium, which gets a strong recommendation from me.

Natatorium screens as part of SXSW, which runs in Austin, Texas from March 8–16. For more information, visit https://schedule.sxsw.com/2024/search/film.



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