Swedish writer and director Jimmy Olsson, who is known for short films like Repressed (2011) and 2nd Class (2018), examines some difficult subjects in his latest short, Alive. Running at just twenty-three minutes, Alive deals with ableism and relational boundaries in its story of two women, Viktoria (Eva Johansson), who has a neuromuscular disorder, and her caretaker Ida (Madeleine Martin). The short is a feel-good tearjerker with a heartwarming lesson, but it also covers new territory in its take on disability and opens the door to some very important and necessary discussions.
Viktoria and Ida share a complicated, murky relationship with unclear boundaries. They spend plenty of time together and often engage in friendly girl-talk, but Ida still sees Viktoria as a child and pulls away from any heavy, adult conversations. After running into Ida’s handsome boyfriend in the park, Viktoria confesses to Ida that she’s lonely and wants to experience dating, love, and sex. Ida helps Viktoria set up a Tinder account to cheer her up, not really expecting anything to come of it. When Viktoria finds a match and starts chatting with a stranger online, however, Ida takes on a parental role, not trusting Viktoria to make her own decisions. Doused in emotion, Alive raises many important questions and invites the audience to examine their own expectations and biases.
Alive definitely speaks more to a non-disabled audience as it tracks Ida’s heuristic mental process. The film’s most intense moment follows Ida rather than Viktoria, inviting the audience to relate to her as she reexamines the parental attitude she takes as a caretaker. Alive certainly allows its audience to sympathize with Viktoria, using its camerawork to hint at her experience in a world that isn’t built for her, but overall the film is not as much about her experience as it is about Ida’s. It is not a breakthrough in cinematic representations of disabled persons, but then again, it’s not trying to be. Alive is about teaching a lesson and getting its audience talking, and in these areas it succeeds. The straightforward plot and on-the-nose dialogue give the film a bright, feel-good tone that, at times, comes across as shallow and betrays the importance of the subject matter. However, this doesn’t stop Alive from serving its purpose as a great conversation starter.
While Alive may seem at first like a simplistic anti-ableism PSA, it rescues itself from this fate by complicating Viktoria’s romantic desires. Alive is not a girl-meets-boy love story. Viktoria is not looking for a boyfriend to make everything better or affirm her identity, and the film does not allow a handsome man to swoop in and act as her “savior.” Alive makes it clear that Viktoria doesn’t need a committed relationship to find her sense of self. Instead, she just wants to meet people, have fun, and enjoy casual dating and sex. Alive confronts the fact that too often, sex becomes joke when the participants aren’t what we consider physically “perfect,” “normal,” or “able.” Sex is a natural human drive, and yet, too often, sexual desire from anyone who doesn’t look like a contestant on The Bachelor is treated as either a joke or a fetish. The film confronts this directly when Ida’s boyfriend asks her if she is into what he calls “disabled sex.” Ida is sympathetic when Viktoria tears up and says that no one will be interested in her, but she acts like the parent of a rebellious teenager when Viktoria, a grown woman, tells her that a man is coming over for a hookup. Alive takes a step in the right direction by confronting the idea that sexual desire is only “normal” coming from someone with a certain type of body.
Alive leaves you wanting to talk, and it is perfectly suited for igniting discussion in small groups. The short is sprinkled with a few cliché lines, but overall it comes through with excellent editing and several surprising moments that take the plot and dialogue in an unexpected direction. It raises important questions that filmmakers and artists should consider, highlighting a subject that is often ignored.
Alive was scheduled to premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March/April 2020, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Follow director Jimmy Olsson on twitter, @regissorjimmy, for updates on future screening dates.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."