The past few years have seen a slew of horror films tackling grief, from Ari Aster’s Hereditary to Jennifer Kent’s wonderful debut, The Babadook. KOKO-DI KOKO-DA, a Swedish-Danish film directed by Johannes Nyholm, which first premiered at Sundance, depicts a portrait of parental grief in its own idiosyncratic way.
The official logline reads: “Elin and Tobias are a happily married couple who regularly vacation with their young daughter. The family is on a dreamy holiday when an innocuous case of food poisoning derails their plans and forever alters the course of their lives. Three years later, the once loving couple is on the road again to go camping, looking for one last chance to go back to the way things used to be. But what once was is lost, and our characters instead find themselves having to relive the same nightmarish events, as that day and the horrors it brings repeat themselves infinitely. Together, they must overcome their trauma, reconcile with their past and fight for their lives. Over, and over, and over again.”
Though featuring some familiar narrative elements, KOKO-DI KOKO-DA shines in its presentation. From the first few moments until its final shot, the screen is littered with unusual characters and stylistic decisions. Without spoiling much, the three antagonists presented to the audience are some of the most delightfully strange and unnerving oddballs to grace the genre in a minute, thanks to their bizarre mannerisms and fully realized performances.
In many ways, KOKO-DI KOKO-DA feels reminiscent of a particularly frightening bedtime story. While this isn’t particularly new, Nyholm and his team have managed to handcraft something fresh. The film even offers starkly minimalist, yet haunting animated sequences to accompany its unusual whimsy. The excellent score consists of children’s instruments and music boxes, with sound design that helps to immerse the viewer in the film’s individual universe.
The movie’s many quirks on display will undoubtedly be a turnoff for certain viewers, as the film tells its story in a manner that is anything other than straightforward. Nyholm experiments with time and space in surprisingly thoughtful ways and kept this critic engaged nearly every step of the way. Though this may frustrate some, it makes sense given the situation that our protagonists have found themselves in. We are just as confused as they are, and that’s okay.
While the film’s structure risks repetition, the runtime clocks in at just about 85 minutes, making for an experience that never overstays its welcome and offers enough. The ending is satisfactory as well, tying up narrative and thematic threads in a way that’s clean, while also leaving room for conversation after the credits have rolled. Reminiscent of some of the best Twilight Zone episodes, this is storytelling that would certainly make Rod Serling proud.
The shortcomings of KOKO-DI KOKO-DA are mostly personal. For instance, one special effect in particular near the end isn’t exactly polished. There’s also a shot that could’ve been cut to add more emotional weight to the resolution. It’s established fairly quickly that this is a low-budget affair, as the majority of the film takes place in one location and avoids spectacle in favor of unease. What’s portrayed on screen is inherently disturbing, but there’s a lightness to it that makes it immediately watchable and makes these minor setbacks forgivable.
Will KOKO-DI KOKO-DA receive the same laudation as a film like The Babadook or Hereditary? Maybe not – it’s certainly more offbeat. But in the vein of these modern classics, it comes highly recommended for discerning fans of the genre. Cheap thrills this is not. This is a nightmarish camping trip that you won’t want to miss.
KOKO-DI KOKO-DA will receive a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles in November with a national release to follow. Dark Star Pictures will distribute the film.