Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel A Man Called Ove became an international bestseller several years ago, chronicling the life of a grumpy old curmudgeon and the unlikely friendship he strikes up with his neighbors. Now, writer/director Hannes Holm has adapted the beloved book into a Swedish-language drama that’s become one of the biggest Swedish box office hits of all time, and with A Man Called Ove finally hitting U.S. theaters, American audiences finally get to see what all the buzz was about. And it’s well worth the wait: Holm’s adaptation is a darkly funny, tragic, and ultimately heartwarming tearjerker about the life of one lonely but extraordinary man.
A 59-year-old widower, Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the kind of cantankerous and nosy old man who hisses at cats, reorganizes his neighbors’ recycling, and breaks off friendships just because the other person drives a Volvo. (He was ousted from his job as the president of the block association ages ago, and he’s never forgiven the mutiny—or fully relinquished his duties.) When he’s fired from his job after 43 years of service, he spends most of his newfound free time wandering around his small neighborhood, closely watching his neighbors for infractions and visiting the grave of his recently deceased wife. During every graveyard visit, he promises to see her again soon, but every time he attempts to kill himself, he either fails or is unknowingly interrupted by one of his neighbors, sparking vivid and emotional flashbacks to earlier periods in his life.
Through these flashbacks, we come to meet the younger Ove (Filip Berg), a prudent but good-hearted man whose life is marked by both unspeakable tragedy and overwhelming love. We come to realize exactly why he’s such a stickler for the rules and why he has such a distrust of bureaucracy, and the flashback scenes with his energetic wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) underscore just how lonely and isolated he is in the present. Things start to look up, however, when a young pregnant woman named Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) moves into the neighborhood with her young daughters and inept husband, and despite his initial reluctance, Ove finds himself warming up to his new friend.
Holm seamlessly switches between the older and younger Oves, and calling this the story of an unlikely friendship only scratches the surface. The unpredictable narrative is slow to show its hand, but as we learn more about our surly protagonist, Lassgård makes it impossible not to root for the depressed, guarded, and ultimately endearing Ove. B+