There’s something formulaic and expected from A Man Called Otto. The Tom Hanks-led movie operates in that arena of awards-bait feel-good dramas that put the very likable actor into the role of a lovable, angry old man. It’s based on a Swedish film, the 2015 film ‘A Man Called Ove,’ which was based on the Swedish novel of the same name by Fredrick Backman. It’s the story of a grumpy old man, Otto, who oversees the cleanliness and order of his community with a gruff and hostile exterior. He’s strict with everybody and he doesn’t have the time nor the patience to be warm.
But what Otto is hiding is an overwhelming sense of grief. Early on in the film, it is established that Otto is grieving over the loss of his wife Sonya. So deep are these feelings that he makes an attempt at killing himself but he gets distracted by things that need his attention, and by the appearance of new neighbours: Marisol (the charming Mariana Trevino) and her family.
From that premise alone, you can already tell where the film is going to move towards and it doesn’t disappoint. Otto’s community is filled with vibrant and distinct people who annoy him at every turn (though, they are just being themselves) and while everyone has grown accustomed to Otto’s curmudgeon persona, Marisol is not so easily deterred. The Hispanic Marisol must’ve grown up in a large family and close relations with her neighbors from where she’s from and she carries that with her. She carves a space for herself in Otto’s life and both characters change and grow due to this.
By all accounts, ‘A Man Called Otto’ unfolds and feels like Oscar-bait. Tom Hanks shakes off his nice guy image to play the gruff old man and it doesn’t have the magic of any of his older work. Much like his character from his last film ‘Elvis,’ it feels put on, every grunt feels rehearsed or placed. It’s a performance rather than a lived experience. I was so resistant to the whole thing until halfway through the film, I started to feel things about these people and these characters.
There’s an insidious way by which director Marc Forster turns this little community into something so wonderfully universal that it gets under your skin. There are wonderful moments of cinematography and editing where Otto interacts with the memories he has of his wife – Forster manages to show how grief is such a present thing – and how all the little things about Otto’s day-to-day, his routine, and his daily rounds betrays his need to hold on to something. It’s in the little things; the little moments that happen every day that add up into a life and the film presents this in such a subtle and undramatic way.
Halfway through the film, I was surprised at how I was reacting. I was getting goosebumps and I was getting invested in the story and, at several important story beats, I found myself fighting back tears. The film doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, but it is done with such love and tenderness and it is filled with such beautiful humanity that it really got me tender and vulnerable.
‘A Man Called Otto’ is a lot of things. It’s about grief and pain and trying to find a reason to continue on after you’ve lost your original reason for living. It’s about community and how we really have to take care of each other. It’s about family – the ones we choose for ourselves – and it’s about growing up and growing old and realising that you are never, ever really alone.
There is nothing that happens in this movie that I wasn’t expecting but it still hit me so hard. The way it was unapologetically what it was as a film; I let my guard down thinking it was just one of the same usual feel-good movies that I was not prepared by how hard I would be hit by the film’s third act.
‘A Man Called Otto’ is a deceptively beautiful movie blossoming with humanity. Bring tissues.
A Man Called Otto opens in cinemas nationwide on January 25. Buy your tickets here.