All it takes is one good, melting look. That’s the way it works in the movies anyway, especially teen romances. Hollywood or Bollywood, Seoul or Sweden, the locale doesn’t matter that much. It’s all about the eyeballs.
“JJ+E,” titled “Vinterviken (Winter Cove)” in Swedish, is a scattered, not particularly focused melodrama from Stockholm. It’s on its surest footing when it zeroes in on our young couple. Everything that gets in the way of their love is strictly Swedish cinematic cheese.
JJ is short for John-John, a child of immigrant single mom (Loreen) growing up in Stockholm’s version of “The Projects.” That’s the one true novelty about this Around the World with Netflix outing — its depiction of Sweden’s multicultural underclass.
JJ (Mustapha Aarab) looks Arabic, and hangs with kids from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. His best bud lives just downstairs and goes by Sluggo (Jonay Pineda Skallak), for obvious reasons.
They’re a mixed crowd, but Sluggo’s corner of it is generally up to no good. JJ’s mother may not say so, but her security guard beau (Albin Grenholm) lays it out for the kid.
“They’ll all end up behind bars,” he warns (in Swedish with English subtitles, or dubbed).
JJ? He’s a good kid. Sort of. The day we meet him he and Sluggo steal a boat for a joyride, and JJ becomes a hero when he rescues a tween who almost drowns. Her dad, Frank (Magnus Krepper) is grateful. Her older sister (Elsa Öhrn) almost gasps when she casts her eyes on him. On seeing her, JJ’s jaw just drops.
Nothing will ever come of it, of course. He’s from The Projects, she’s living in a seaside villa with a pool.
But JJ has this notion of changing his life. He gets into Stockholm’s answer to the School of Performing Arts. He wants to be an actor. Shockingly, “E,” short for Elisabeth, is accepted there as well.
The best scenes in this Alexis Almström (“Top Dog”) film, adopted from a YA novel by Mats Wahl, are of the slow-motion, low-heat courtship that sets up this romance. A little checking each other out on social media, ask a mutual acquaintance about “her story.” She is withdrawn, sarcastic and sad. He is young and tactless, and also living his life in a minefield, a kid facing limited expectations and options and patronizing racism even from those whoseem sympathetic.
He tries to fit in with some of her people, and she joins him for a night of hanging out with his extensive entourage of multi-cultural friends.
The melodrama swirling around these two increasingly lovesick kids is a grab bag of cliches. Sluggo’s various criminal activities include breaking into E’s house. JJ+E can’t even go to luridly-lit mid-forest rave without getting mugged on the way home.
The leads generate enough heat to seem plausible as a couple, but her daddy’s disapproval and the boy’s pleading in the rain scene aren’t played with enough pathos to come off.
But the worst thing about “JJ+E” might be acting school. This isn’t “Fame,” in any way, shape or form. Not only do the characters seem indifferent to the “call to perform,” the actors playing them don’t show much that would get them admitted into a competitive acting conservatory.
A crying-on-cue demonstration from E for JJ’s skeptical friends is a lovely moment, but there aren’t many of those.
It’s not another “Romeo & Juliet” variation, even if the title suggests that. The stakes are low, the tropes too familiar and while the leads may get across the intensity of their crush with just their eyes, they don’t bring much else to this formulaic, tepid teen romance.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, sexual situations, smoking, profanity
Cast: Elsa Öhrn, Mustapha Aarab, Magnus Krepper, Loreen and Jonay Pineda Skallak
Credits: Directed by Alexis Almström, scripted by Dunja Vujovic, based on the book by Mats Wahl. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:31