Swedish Auto Review - A Sweet Ride

Turns out the coolest cars hitting movie theaters this summer are not cartoons voiced by Paul Newman and Owen Wilson.  "Swedish Auto," a new independent film helmed by first-time writer and director Derek Sieg, pulls out purring engines of a Swedish breed to tell a complexly simple tale about one mechanic's hesitant journey into a romance he wasn't quite sure he wanted, but comes to find out that it's the one thing he truly needs.

As descriptive as the title appears to be, unlike Disney's 'Cars,' the Sieg film is not laid out as neatly in subject matter based upon title.  Quite to the contrary, 'Swedish Auto' is an accurate description of the film's story in so far as it serves only as one of the locations' a Swedish auto repair shop in small-town America (Charlottesville, Virginia--the hometown of Sieg' where it was filmed).  As the place of employment and the public world of the film's protagonist, the Swedish auto shop becomes a symbol.  It is a foreign entity in a foreign land, much like the characters who feel so foreign to their own world, yet find acceptance and understanding within each other.

The ever-charming and subtle Lukas Haas plays Carter, a soft-spoken mechanic at Leroy's Swedish Auto Shop, who spends his days with co-workers fixing up Saabs and Volvos.  Routinely eating lunch at Mel's, waited upon by an unassuming, yet attractive waitress named Darla (January Jones), Carter makes no secret of his anti-social after-work life.  Yeah' it's about as exciting as seeing movies on his own, watering his plants, and living day-by-day in an isolated existence.

Lukas Haas as Carter

Hidden beneath the tapestry of a simple exterior, however, Carter also has a penchant for spending his evenings ala 'Rear Window' in pursuit of a young concert violinist named Ann (Brianne Davis).  The stalking remains innocently distant (yet still moderately creepy) as Carter finds himself falling in love with Ann's projected image, embodying his idea of perfection in a cool and composed woman.

Tables suddenly turn when Carter realizes he's not the only voyeur in town.  The meek waitress Darla is actually following him as well.  Neither is terribly alarmed by the mutual interest, and they quickly become close friends. Not only that, but both relate to each other through stifled feelings of helplessness within the status quo; or in Darla's case, an abusive family situation.  Driven by a love not initially clearly comprehended, they find themselves forced to finally confront life and realize that perhaps the very thing they're looking for is, in fact, within each other.
"It was just the story; the simplicity of the story and the poetic way that it was told.  It played out in its own pace," says actress January Jones of what attracted her to "Swedish Auto" above the other high-profile roles she now vies for as an up-and-coming recognizable face in Hollywood.  "I loved the love story. It's very sweet and realistic."

Lee Weaver as Leroy

The realism that Jones refers to is one of the stronger points of "Swedish Auto," which takes hints from reality in that it's not always all-together "exciting" in the sense of constant explosions, jet-ski villain chases, or upside down kisses in the rain.  "Swedish Auto" has a very internal, subtle sense to it, forming primarily from deep and sharply drawn characters.  Adding to that strength is the on-screen in dynamic between Jones and Haas, which feels so genuine and uncontrived, that it really makes the love story strangely tangible to the everyman. 

Of course, the chemistry between the two leads certainly helps foster such grooves and texture.  So much of the piece is dependent upon the performances of Haas and Jones--the very fulcrum which pivots "Swedish Auto" into the very believable story that it is. And because so much of the piece must stand upon the combined performances of the two leads, chemistry between Haas and Jones was essential. 

"January was awesome.  She's just a really wonderful actress, and she's very sensitive and she helped me.  We both fell into a groove," says Lukas Haas of his experience in creating 'that spark' with his co-star.   "The feeling on set really matched the tone of the movie, which is always a cool thing. It doesn't usually happen."

Jones seems to agree, saying that "It was a really nice chemistry that Lukas and I had. It was a kind of a very naive and sweet chemistry and connection that those two characters had' .Lukas and I played off each other quite a bit. Our characters are very similar." 

Darla "helps" Carter at the shop

As an independent film, it's a joy when directors are blessed with talented, established actors like Lukas Haas and January Jones to interpret their story.  For many, however, it's a daunting task in and of itself simply to get those actors.  It's often just as frustrating for performers trying to expand the integrity of their craft in roles more akin to the characters of a Tom Stoppard, versus the typical fare you'd come to expect from "Kangaroo Jack." 

Unfortunately, actors within the monstrous cog-work that is Hollywood often do not have the luxury to pick and choose roles.  Often, the "meal ticket" factor comes into play, as does consideration over how "commercial" a project can make an actor appear.  "Swedish Auto" defies Hollywood convention in several ways, however, especially in the acquisition of its two fine gems, who signed on to a project they believed in with little or no regard to the potentially disastrous career move of appearing in a small indie with possibly little or no financial gain in sight (luckily, we're not talking a bad movie here).

Haas, for example, is no stranger to the film world--both studio-funded and independent.   An ever-present force, appearing in his first recognizable role as a young Amish boy opposite Harrison Ford in 1985's "Witness," to more recent projects such as "Last Days" and "Alpha Dog," clearly Haas knows what he's doing when selecting roles with merit and directing the path of his own career.  The protagonist of this film, Carter, is "this interesting guy who's kind of on the fringe of society," according to Haas.  "' he doesn't' really know what direction he wants to go, and he's looking for love and how he can find it, and [then] falls into it."

Darla and Carter

Carter, then, seems to definitely meet the criteria of a veritable role, ripe and full of the mystery, intrigue, and room for growth that forms the backbone of a strong character.   As a point to "Swedish Auto" and a credit to Sieg in casting, it is Haas's quiet subtlety and his internalization of it that, in all honesty, really makes the film.

"I thought it was a really fun role to play' I thought it was nice' the struggle between the fantasy and reality of it [is what I liked], and I just like the script," Haas says, recalling his initial attraction to the role and how he managed to get a hold of the script.  "A friend of mine was producing it.  Jay Ferguson.  He told the director about me, and asked me to read it.  I liked it' usually, it [the filmmaking process and casting] doesn't happen that way." 

For Jones, it was about being able to "play a role that is way off base for a lot of studio people."  Considering Darla's girl-next-door appeal, plagued by both inner and outer demons, the move is far cry from her roles in past works such as "American Wedding" and "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights."  Darla turned out to be a perfect escape for Jones, and the interesting and unique aspects of Darla were a shoe-in for January when considering the script. "Spontaneity is important as an actor to not get stuck in the same character," she says.   "She [Darla] gives hope to everyone.  People, even in dire straits, are able to crawl out of situations.  It gave me hope."

Darla, then, is certainly not (and thankfully not) a character from the "American Pie" universe.  These more mature parts for Jones such as those in the recent Tommy Lee Jones flick "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and the upcoming "We Are Marshall" signal that the recent acceptance of other non-mainstream roles proves Jones is more than just a pretty face.  Great things are to come from her in the future.

Leroy's Swedish Auto Shop

Of course, as much as the actors are what captivate and hold our attention while sitting in a dark room staring at a screen, a movie is much like a ship.  The director is its captain, and this film is particularly well-commanded.  Commendable for being the director's first major attempt, he focuses largely on emotion, personal experience, and experimentation, courageously tackling his subject matter to bring a sharp and realistic perspective to audiences.  Devoid of the flowery and superfluous language used to hide reality in larger films, Derek Sieg manages to still maintain that delicate balance exploring the duplicitous joys and sorrows of life, as well as managing to interject a bit of the surrealism of romance into the mix.

"Derek is a really cool guy," begins Haas in his high praise for the director.  "It's his first movie, so it was kind of a unique experience. It's always really fun working with a first time director.  He had a great style and knew exactly what he wanted."

"He trusted both of us in our roles respectively.  And by the time it came to shooting," Jones agrees, "we had talked about everything and we were expected to know our shit by that day." 

The bravery and wonderment still within Sieg so early on in his career contributed to what turned both actors on to the film, and what makes the work so "unique" and honest.  It is his relative newness to the "machine" of Hollywood, too, that allows an overriding sense of optimism and faith in film to appear so pervasively.  His passion is clearly reflected back to the audience, and makes viewers believe in the piece and its characters just as much as Sieg does.  His great story is the marrow of the skeleton for 'Swedish Auto,' and his technique and passion for the material carries it through to the very end. 

Lukas Haas, chilling out on the set

'To me, each film sort of always has something that I grab onto.  It's usually has to do with either there's a challenge involved, or there's something about the material,' Haas finishes up, recalling the hidden magical feeling the generally draws an actor into a film, just as it draws audiences.  'In this case, just reading it, it just really' it's hard to explain sometimes.  You have a connection; it's not something you can necessarily put into words.' 

Haas appears to be on to something though, as audiences frequently find themselves relating to this indefinable sentiment.  Something just 'grabs' the audience, compels them, and takes them along for the ride.  'Swedish Auto' is neither fast, nor slow; not a roller coaster ride, but also not necessarily a buggy ride either.  Its very own unique pacing is difficult to describe, but it meshes so perfectly with the story and the development of the relationship between the characters, that the film seems as second nature as reality.

The lovely January Jones as Darla

Who says a movie needs gimmicky CG-motor oil to keep it going, when it can be carried along so effortlessly by its own propulsion?  If "Swedish Auto" can be as sweepingly enthralling, but with half the budget and more heart' I'll take a foreign car any day. 

For more information on "Swedish Auto," visit the official website at Swedish Auto's Official Website 

Contact the writer: [email protected]

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