Film Review: “A New Kind of Wilderness” Follows a Family Trying to Move Forward After Loss

Winner of The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, A New Kind of Wilderness chronicles a family’s plans being upended by tragedy. Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen was first attracted to this Norwegian family through matriarch Maria Gros Vatne’s blog and photography. The film’s title comes from a blog entry she made on October 22nd, 2018, in which Maria shared with readers that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. By the end of 2019, Maria was gone.

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Photo by Maria Gros Vatne)

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Photo by Maria Gros Vatne)

Maria and Nik were raising four children on a farm on the outskirts of a forest in Norway, homeschooling and teaching them to become good stewards of the earth. In the wake of Maria’s loss, the family not only bids adieu to Maria’s daughter from a previous marriage but has to give up the farm. With Nik now solely responsible for the finances and his children’s upbringing, he grapples with taking on a more conventional lifestyle.

The narrative’s biggest impact comes through ten-year-old Freja, the oldest of Nik’s children with Maria and his only daughter. As the oldest, she appears to be the most impacted by Maria’s loss, which also came with the departure of her big sister Ronja, who went to live with her biological father. Silje Evensmo Jacobsen spends some time chronicling Ronja’s own healing process, showcasing a few times Ronja comes to visit with her siblings. But Freja also draws much of the audience’s attention through her successful transition to a conventional school life. Initially hesitant based on the way she’s been raised, Freja quickly falls in love with attending class alongside same-age peers.

While the premise of A New Kind of Wilderness is sad, the way the Payne family supports one another is inspiring. Nik struggles to let go of the life he built with Maria and the vision they shared for their children’s future, but it is his kids who lend emotional support and encourage him to go on. Having been raised in England where his father lives, Nik also weighs the option of uprooting his Norwegian children and raising them where he has support from his extended family (the film’s dialogue bounces between English and Norwegian).

A New Kind of Wilderness is beautifully crafted out of Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s footage, alongside Maria Gros Vatne’s home videos and audio recordings about her family. It gives the film a dual nature of what came before and after her passing. But more than that, it’s a reminder that in the wake of true tragedy, life goes on.

I give A New Kind of Wilderness 4 out of 5 stars.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).