That’s Zlatan as in Zlatan Ibrahimović, the superstar Swedish striker whose troubled childhood in a tough working-class neighbourhood of Malmö is dramatised here. The cocky underprivileged kid saved from (possibly) a life of crime by football; it sounds like the cheesiest sports movie ever. And yet director Jens Sjögren, more interested in what happens off the pitch, dodges the dull cliches. His sympathetic, realist film is a compelling watch.
The film is based on Ibrahimović’s autobiography, co-authored with the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz. Dominic Andersson Bajraktati plays 11-year-old Zlatan, who is disruptive in school and bad-tempered on the pitch. What soon becomes clear is that all this behaviour is the communication of a kid who feels inadequate, alone and often hungry. He’s playing football with middle-class boys who wear the right football boots, their dads cheering from the sidelines. Zlatan’s parents divorced when he was little. His dad, Bosnian caretaker Šefik (Cedomir Glisovic), is a brooder who drinks heavily, and his exhausted mum Jurka (Merima Dizdarevic) is emotionally unavailable; both characters are written with real emotional generosity.
Granit Rushiti is Zlatan aged 17 during a crucial moment when he might make the Malmö first team or quit football altogether. Rushiti also plays Zlatan a few years on, in his early 20s, now a promising young striker for Ajax – where racist news reporting refers to him as a “lazy immigrant”. There are some insightful insider-y scenes as his agent negotiates a big-time deal with Juventus.
What works best is that I Am Zlatan doesn’t push the triumph-over-adversity sports-movie formula. What keeps Ibrahimović on the straight and narrow? Survival instinct? His passion and God-given talent? The film entertains a darker possibility that he channelled his anger, that football success meant revenge against those who wrote him off.
• I Am Zlatan is released on 3 June in cinemas and on 20 June on digital platforms.