Written by Caballero Oscuro
Following a string of film festival honors and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, Sweet Land is finally available to the general public with its DVD release. The film was made on a shoestring (reportedly around $1M) but looks very polished, partially due to its scenic rural setting in the pristine farmlands of Minnesota.
Elizabeth Reaser stars as Inge, a young German woman who travels to the US in the 1920s to marry a man she’s never met, a Norwegian immigrant named Olaf (Tim Guinee). There’s limited back story provided about why Olaf arranged for the marriage, as well as why Inge was willing to leave her home behind, leaving the focus fully on their budding relationship.
Olaf is a gruff, quiet farmer and a respected member of his community. Inge’s arrival causes an immediate commotion in his neighborhood, especially when she is exposed as a German instead of the Norwegian everyone was expecting. In the aftermath of WWI, the community has an extreme problem with Germans to such an extent that the local minister (John Heard) refuses to marry them, casting Inge’s future into doubt.
Inge takes refuge with kindly neighbors played by Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston, learning US customs and adapting to life in a large family during her stay. The neighbors have some financial problems endemic to the farming community, with the constant threat of foreclosure hanging over their heads from the local fatcat banker played by Ned Beatty. This presents another dilemma for Inge as she continues her American adventure, hoping for resolution to her marriage as well as her host family’s financial future.
As Inge, Reaser plays the wide-eyed innocent to nearly sappy extent, appearing so naïve and overly accepting that it seems miraculous that she ever found the resolve to leave her home or navigate her way to the States. That innocence helps to explain how she could commit to marry a man who didn’t even bother to provide her with a viable photograph of himself in advance, but tends to become a bit wearying as the film meticulously tracks her golly-gee-whiz discovery of all things American. The rest of the cast seems just a tad off as well, especially Heard as the unconvincing minister and Cumming as the flighty dandy of a neighbor who seems completely out of place on a farm.
While the film is good-natured and a gentle glimpse of our idealized rural history, it really doesn’t have much to say. There’s little question about how Inge’s story will work out in the end, and it takes too long to get to that inevitable conclusion in light of its flimsy plot. The cast is game and the cinematography is suitably scenic, but in the end it feels more like a quaint, throwback TV movie of the week rather than a full-fledged feature film.