When a childish prank goes horribly wrong, a group of friends must decide how far they’re willing to go to make things right in Mauritz Brekke Solberg‘s thrilling drama Juli. (July.). Set against the backdrop of a hot summer day in the backwoods of Norway, the peaceful location quickly turns into an unsettling terrain they can no longer escape. The film’s alluring romanticism of youth, coupled with true adulthood on the horizon, makes July’s dark exploration of responsibility a heart pounding ride that will leave a lasting impression.
Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Jørgen Klüver in a sleepy summer forest, July feels like a whimsical coming of age drama… until it doesn’t. The first sign of this shift isn’t in the quickly escalating antics of the four lead actors, but rather in the seamlessly uncanny tonal shift that happens in camera. A slow push in on a worm crawling on Tarjei’s (Alfred Ekker Strande) foot or a creepy shot of a Eline (Ylva Fuglerud) stretching her back with an off putting sound. In many ways, Solberg borrows from the horror genre in manipulating his audience to feel dread before the big inciting incident of the story even happens. While on the surface, all four characters feel as if they are on the cusp of their budding future, there’s something holding them back from taking that leap. So when a local urban legend about a witch in the old mill house turns into a chance to prove themselves, rising to the challenge reveals deadly unforeseen consequences.
“That one-take was a make or break moment”
And boy do those consequences hit home for these characters. Arguably, it’s the impressive single-take shot that really shines as the hero moment in July, as we got to experience the unravelling, when everything goes wrong, in “real”-time and it’s this scene that really sells the thrills of the film. “We hired the local steadicam-legend Atle Holtan for the job”, Solberg reveals as we discuss that five-minute shot. “I will say that nailing that one-take was a make or break moment for what we wanted to achieve with this short. Seeing the actors put on such performances and seeing it all come together with sound and music was something I am really proud of”.
Written by Solberg and his writing partner, Daniel Fure Schwarz, July is very much a chamber piece, despite the outdoor location. Four actors carry the storyline and their chemistry is thanks to very strategic casting. “The cast are young talented actors from Norway, one of them having never played in a film before”, Solberg explains. “It was important to us to find a group of people who worked well together, so some of the actors knew each other from before and had recommended each other”.
But the strength of the story also lies in personal experience. “I think it was the summer between seventh and eighth grade that I participated in my first (and only) window pane smashing”, the filmmaker admits as he explains the inspiration behind July. “There were six of us present and we all ran away. No one thought to check if anyone was home in the house. Later I thought about how a similar situation would have turned out different if we were more mature and more morally responsible people”. And it was the combination of these ideas that laid the foundation for the script written with Schwarz.
Together, they wanted to explore group mentality and moral responsibility weaved into a world that felt like it truly belonged to the characters. Identifying the oppressive heat and location as vital in creating the tension-filled atmosphere in July, they settled on a small town called Halden in East Norway. The hometown of Rebekka Rognøy, the film’s producer, they were also able to receive funding from the municipality.
Without giving away the conclusion, there’s something of a question left for the audience by the story’s end, which leaves an uneasy feeling that lingers long after watching. Screening at this year’s Palm Springs International Shortfest, July also received honorable mentions in the categories of Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Design at the Prague International Indie Film Festival. Solberg is currently shooting a new short, a dark comedy called Offline focusing on the commercial film industry which he’s co-writing and co-directing with Schwarz. He also recently received funding to develop a television drama, which he is again penning with his writing partner.