November 18, 2020
Sweet Land (2005)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Ali Selim
Stars: Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming

What it's about. Set in 1920 and 1966. Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mail order bride from Germany who arrives in a remote rural Minnesota farming community to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee). She has no papers, and the wedding must be continually postponed. The couple is shunned by their Lutheran minister (John Heard).

But they do have a close friend in good-hearted neighbor Frandsen (Alan Cumming). Frandsen's wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) is also friendly, and the couple has many children. The frugal Olaf disapproves of Frandsen's spendthrift ways, and the two friends have a falling out. Meanwhile, the romance between Inge and Olaf improves after a shaky start.

Sweet Land was many years in the making. The film is based on a short story by Will Weaver, published in 1989. First-time writer/director Ali Selim bought the film rights to the story, and labored on the script off and on for ten years. Unable to find funding from the film industry, he raised the money from Minnesota investors.

How others will see it. The low budget Sweet Land did decent business in the art house circuit, particularly in Minnesota. Fillmaker Selim had success on the festival circuit, including Best First Feature from the Independent Spirit Awards. Reaser's performance was also much nominated.

At, indifference greets the movie. It has a scant 3600 user votes, and the user rating of 7.1 out of 10 is good but not great. The user rating does rise to 7.5 among women over 45. Americans grade the movie substantially higher (7.4) than do non-Americans (6.7), partly due to Reaser's lack of fluency in the German and Norwegian languages her character is supposed to know.

How I felt about it. I have long had a pet theory that a filmmaker's first effort is often his or her best film, because they have not yet learned how to make a film commercial. A more positive assessment is that they have not yet surrendered to the Hollywood money machine.

This movie does have Hollywood aspects. Familiar faces in supporting roles include Ned Beatty, John Heard, Lois Smith, and Alan Cumming. The lead character, Inge, is a beautiful young woman. In fact, she is too beautiful. If she wanted to leave Germany after World War I, Switzerland is due south, and they speak German. There is no need for her to marry an American subsistence farmer she has never met.

But it's okay. A quality supporting cast is a good thing. Especially the late John Heard, a particularly underrated actor. And if Reaser is cute as a button, it only makes the movie even more of a pleasure to watch.

Folks of Norwegian or German heritage complain that Reaser knows neither language, and are aware that her jabbering is gibberish. But, the audience is American, and it's hard to find a suitable actress fluent in all both foreign languages with a budget of less than two million dollars.

A more apt criticism is that Inge would not be able to work all day in the field if she has never toiled there before. She would be exhausted after an hour, and badly sunburnt by noon. Also, Olaf would not jeopardize his own farm to purchase Frandsen's. Particularly after Frandsen had punched him out in public. Well, it's a movie.

But it is believable that a German immigrant who doesn't speak English would find a hostile reception in a rural community shortly after World War I. It's also easy to understand why Olaf would want to marry the beautiful Inge despite her disadvantages. And it's a completely charming movie, and a refreshing change from the comic book heroes that populate the megaplexes.