Sweet Land is one of those feisty little independent films whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With its deliberate pace, minimal dialogue (half of it in foreign tongues sans subtitles) and rather simple plotting, writer/director Ali Selim's debut effort doesn't seem like much at first glance -- until the film sinks in hours later.
It's then that the images of rural Minnesota -- with its waves of grain, rolling hills and endless skies -- take hold. It's about the same time that the endless stares shared between the two immigrant lovers feel like the courtship dance it most assuredly is. Elizabeth Reaser (as the German Inge) and Tim Guinee (as the Norwegian Olaf) are known mostly to TV audiences, and their characters spend much of the movie trying to find some kind of middle ground in their broken English. And yet it's their characters' complete inability to take their eyes off each other that provides most of the film's power beyond all those wondrous landscapes.
The plot is simple enough. Inge has crash-landed in the rural immigrant village as a mail-order bride to Olaf, who thought he'd gotten a fellow Norwegian but instead gets a German at the height of World War I paranoia about "the enemy" on home soil. Olaf isn't the only one who's bummed; her arrival also raises the suspicions of the local cleric (John Heard), who fears the German and the cultural baggage she brings with her. (Who knew Germans were considered such a bad influence?)
Inge's timing couldn't be worse, because Olaf has his hands full, not just with his own harvest-season issues but also those of his best friend and neighbor, Frandsen (Alan Cumming). Frandsen's better at having children with his wife (Alex Kingston) than he is at farming, and sooner or later his failings are going to affect his friend, who'd really prefer just to live a simple life.
But there stands Inge who, as played by Reaser, just keeps staring at Olaf, waiting for a signal. Deceptively feisty, Inge shows her temper only when she feels wronged, and spends just as much time trying to figure out Olaf as she does this strange new country.
Sweet Land is populated with just enough familiar character actors (Heard, Cumming, Ned Beatty, Paul Sand) to feel recognizable, but it's clear whom Selim sees as his stars. He has a gift for creating distance -- in the depth of his landscapes, and the spaces between his lovers, and much of the charm is watching Olaf and Inge awkwardly close those spaces.
There are minor quibbles, including a needless flashback device that feels like a nod to the original source material of Will Weaver's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat." And as beautiful as she may be, Reaser -- who with her pure porcelain skin and bacon strips of auburn hair looks like a cross between Juliet Binoche and Julia Roberts -- gets an inordinate amount of close-up time. Still, you get the point: This is a woman not to be ignored.
Reaser and Selim both scored Independent Spirit Award nominations for their work, and that's no coincidence, for, like the movie they made, they appreciate the little things.