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'Beartown,' Powerful, Somber Drama from Sweden is Deeper Than it Might Appear
February 22, 2021  | By David Hinckley  | 49 comments

I've got to admit I didn't have high expectations for an imported miniseries focusing on the dramas surrounding a junior hockey team from an extremely cold town in far northern Sweden.

With subtitles.

But Beartown, a five-episode series HBO will premiere in the U.S. at 9 p.m. ET Monday, surprised me. It tells an intense and often dark story that captures the fragile dreams and palpable desperation of places that feel they've been abandoned by time.

Change hockey to football, and Beartown could be the diary of a thousand American small towns where the factory closed, the interstate killed Main Street, the farms got swallowed, or the kids started leaving because they just wanted something more.

Beartown builds up to a single traumatic event that threatens to rip the town apart. Yet, for all the blunt force of that single moment, the power of the show lies in how it carefully lays out the dynamics of a town where everybody still sort of knows everybody, but the bonds from the mythic good old days have been steadily frayed. If they ever really existed in the first place.

Beartown begins with the return of Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), the town's shining success story and an ongoing beacon of hope. Peter was a hockey prodigy who went on to play in the National Hockey League, beaming a light that shone on all of Beartown.

Now in his 40s and retired, Peter has been lured back to coach the town's senior hockey team. It's a challenge and a fresh start since he and his wife Mira (Aliette Opheim) experienced some tragedies out there in the wider world.

Peter's career was cut short by injuries, for one thing. More traumatic, they lost their young son, Isak.

Still, Mira has a good job as a lawyer, and they have two healthy children, Maya (Miriam Ingrid) and Leo (Lukas Wetterberg). The kids aren't thrilled about moving to a new town in the middle of nowhere – what kid would be? – but Maya quickly makes a good new friend, Ana (Sanna Niemi).

The hockey drama heats up quickly, and more to the point, gives the viewer a window into the emotions, rivalries, grudges, and secret wishes that permeate Beartown.

Peter, who speaks bluntly, realizes after the first practice that the town hockey team is terrible. It still has players from the days when he grew up there, and they are simply too old to be competitive.

Instead, something else catches his eye: the junior team, particularly star scorer Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufåker). Peter bigfoots his way into taking over the junior team, promising he can elevate them from good to very, very good.

This ruffles some feathers among the existing staff and even more significantly puts Peter into the sights of Kevin's father Mats (Tobias Zilliacus), himself a former hockey player with whom it turns out Peter has a long and not pleasant history.

Mats is also a world-class jerk of a father, putting Kevin in the crosshairs of parental jealousy even before Peter showed up.

As the junior team improves exactly the way Peter promised it could, expectations build. Townspeople start whispering that if the junior team can make a national mark, perhaps it will persuade the owners of the local factory – the town's only real economic engine – to reaffirm their commitment.

Okay, you 15-year-olds, go win this game to save your town. No pressure.

Behind the scenes, naturally, everyone is not in the same car on the victory train. Old wounds surface and help spawn new ones. Innocents suffer.

Beartown isn't without heart or hope. It has affection for its title community and wishes it no ill. It also feels no hesitation in noting what can happen to that community when distrust and cruelty lie behind the smiles.

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