After fifteen years of directing short films and documentaries, Swedish filmmaker Frida Kempff has turned to feature fictional filmmaking with her suffocatingly intimate portrait of mental illness, Knocking. Based on Johan Theorin’s novel 2016 on the same name adopted by screenwriter Emma Broström, at the heart of the film lies the character of Molly, played by Cecilia Milocco who had previously collaborated with Kempff on their 2016 short film, Dear Kid. In that earlier film, Milocco plays a woman who suspects the local swimming teacher is abusing one of the children in their care, but she has no proof and is unsure how to act on her suspicions.
While a different set up altogether, Knocking in many ways hinges on a similar premise. After a life-changing tragedy, Molly spends a period of time in a psychiatric institution where, it seems, she has recovered enough to be able to return back to live in the community. Haunted by flashbacks of her life before the crisis that so changed her, she regardless gives her new life a solid shot of success. Allocated a rather dreary, small and stuffy apartment in an equally grim large, anonymous apartment block, she makes an effort: she buys a plant as a symbolic gesture that denotes her wish to build a new life. But in the stifling summer heat and in an apartment without air conditioning, Molly’s attempts to remain on track are challenged, even more so by a disturbing knocking sound she hears in her ceiling, granting the film its title. As her investigations grow more obsessive, her paranoia grows as her neighbours insist they cannot hear it. Is there someone trapped in the ceiling trying to communicate with her, or is Molly’s recovery not as solid as her doctors had perhaps hoped?
In cinemas on 8th October with a VOD release soon to follow, Knocking invites us into Molly’s world and does not let us escape. We don’t know everything about her, but we feel like we know her regardless as we see flashes of her past trauma as memories that randomly impinge on her day to day life. Yet through their collaboration, Kempff and Milocco are careful to never demonize her or render Molly’s history of mental health issues two dimensional.
The film thus raises interesting questions; do we believe (or, in turn, disbelieve) Molly because of her past mental health challenges? Can someone with such a background be trusted? Aside from being a taut psychological horror film, what Knocking impressively accomplishes is making it inescapable for us to avoid our own potential biases about mental health, especially when it comes to women. A film both simultaneously subtle and confronting, with Knocking Kempff achieves the perfect balancing act that holds the humanity of those living with mental illness such as Molly at its core.