Netflix’s Scandinavian series A Nearly Normal Family is centered around the question of how far any parent will go to protect their child. It is based on the celebrated novel by M. T. Edvardsson, which goes by the same name. From the first instance, we are told that Stella Sandell will eventually end up in prison, and the hows and whys are gradually unfolded. Since I have not read the novel, my review is solely based on the series. A Nearly Normal Family puts into question the idea of ‘normal’ itself—is a normal family necessarily a happy family? And how long will a family prefer living in denial to appear normal to society?
Family is sacred, or it is what we are told from a very young age, and something sacred does not need to be perfect. The Sandells appear to be just another family with their share of disagreements and problems. But it was one incident that changed the family forever. At the center of A Nearly Normal Family, we have Stella Sandell, a regular teenager who enjoys nothing more than hanging out with her best friend, Amina. Stella was raped during her formative years, and it left her scarred for life. Her family’s response to the rape affected her beyond her realization. Her father, Adam, was a pastor who believed in doing the right thing, and his response to any critical situation was mostly emotional. In contrast, his wife, Ulrika, a criminal defense lawyer, believed only in rationality. Adam and Ulrika were two very different people with opposing views on life. They realized that the only way to keep their marriage alive was by bypassing their differences and pretending to be just another couple whose marriage seemed to be almost perfect.
To Adam, Stella was still a little girl, and he preferred to live in denial, while for Ulrika, she was nothing more than a disappointment. Even though the Sandells appeared to be perfect, they were a damaged family that chose to never address their problems. There was always a hint of pure sadness whenever Stella mentioned her being a disappointment, not just to her family but also to herself, and that went on to show the lack of support she received from her loved ones. A Nearly Normal Family does a great job of perfecting the characters and the theme. Every time Stella showed an ounce of fear, we knew where she was coming from. Her initial disregard for the prison psychologist and her need to always prove that she was in control showed how afraid she was of facing her feelings. The characters are layered, and through the overall muted tone, director Per Hanefjord captures the internal conflicts quite well.
It is one of those series that you cannot really assign a genre to. It is not a whodunit because what transpired the night of the murder was quite evident, although there were layers that maybe were not as easy to unwrap in the first place. It is neither an all-out crime thriller nor a courtroom drama, even though elements from both genres are present. It is surely more of a family drama, but not entirely because there is a significant focus on the trial and the night of the murder. There is a sense of tension that the audience might experience, and it is not about finding out details about the murder but rather the fate of the accused. Two timelines are unfolding in the film: the present, which involves the murder trial, and Stella’s past, which ties up with the present. While we see a few bright shades in the past, the present mostly follows a noir aesthetic. The night of the murder unfolds through three different perspectives—the father, mother, and daughter—and the details explored end up becoming crucial for the family later in the series.
The cinematography is not exceptional, but it does the job of executing the story. Visually, A Nearly Normal Family is average; while the lighting is alluring, it is pretty much like any other Netflix show dabbling in noir and crime thrillers. The audio score adds to building up the tension, and I particularly enjoyed the music played during the credit role. The lack of an elaborate intro is quite a relief, and the focus remains only on one family portrait. By analyzing the portrait, one can deduce the dominant characteristics of each of the family members, and using only that one photograph is quite a clever trick. Alexandra Karlsson Tyrefors playing the role of Stella Sandell is quite brilliant. It is Tyrefors’ debut series, and she shines throughout. From the innocent excitement of a young teenager to being defeated and stricken by panic attacks, Tyrefors brings Stella to life on screen. Bjorn Bengtsson, as Adam Sandell, captures the struggle of the father quite aptly. It is to Bengtsson’s credit that the audience can relate to the sudden emotional outbursts and the overall helplessness that the character experiences throughout the trial. Ulrika Sandell is a complex character, and her rational choices often make one feel that there is a certain lack of emotion. Lo Kauppi, as Ulrika, portrays the layered character quite well. Nothing precedes the law, but beneath the stern, calm face, we finally get to see Ulrika’s emotional side when her daughter is put on trial. There comes a breaking point, which, in a way, helps the character evolve. In the end, it took someone to break completely for the family to acknowledge their shortcomings.
A Nearly Normal Family is a decent Netflix series that you can easily binge on. The ‘what will happen next?’ feeling will make you go from one episode to the next. It is a slow burner, so if you are more into pacy crime thrillers, this might not be the one for you. The work that is put in to handle this sensitive subject is commendable. Watch the series for the characters, the theme, and the overall emotional impact. Overall, it is a compelling watch with a broken family and a crime unfolding at the center.