Feb 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

“I get along without you very well,” Chet Baker croons — mellow as one of his heroin highs — under a suburban scene that could be from anyplace or anytime: A girl arcs toward the sky on a swing set, her motion slowed, the colors of this cinematic snapshot faded. A red sports car pulls into the drive. The girl abandons the swing to run into the arms of the man who climbs out, her father. Later we may realize that a weighty nostalgia drags through this moving picture, eroding time and color, and that Baker’s lyric sentiment is a lie that Kaisa (Lena Headey, Onegin) — the woman who was that little girl — and her father Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, The Glass House) have been living for more than a decade.

Neither has gotten along without the other very well. But Kaisa expertly disguises the fact. At an office party, she sits with such cocky poise at the head of a boardroom table that she manages not to look ridiculous under a tinfoil crown decorated with small red balls like miniature clown noses. Her colleagues raise their glasses as their boss toasts her promotion with champagne. She’s “really part of the family now,” he proclaims.

But Kaisa is estranged from her blood relations — and from all intimate relationships, it seems. When a one-night-stand reaches up to touch her face as she grinds pleasure from him, she slaps his hand away. She can’t (or won’t) remember his name the morning after. She keeps in touch with her mother, Helen (Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand), who lives in the titular Aberdeen, Scotland, by phone. She hasn’t seen her father (whom she sums up as “a useless pile of shit”) for years.

Tomas wears his dysfunction like his body odor of boozy sweat and cigarette smoke. Kaisa, dutifully responding to her mother’s gentle pleas to bring him to Aberdeen for a new rehabilitation program, flies to Norway to find him in a smoky pub with his barfly cronies. She shanghais him by taking his alcohol hostage. If he comes along peacefully, she’ll allow him one beer an hour, with a sip of whisky for good behavior.

Aberdeentakes a dysfunctional family’s melodrama on the road — and it’s a road less traveled. The saccharine and forgettable Pontiac Moon (1994) may be the last movie that put parent and child in a car with an unplanned destination of redemptive bonding. Writer-director Hans Petter Moland (Zero Kelvin) and novice screenwriter Kristen Amundsen manage to take the pathos of melodrama to the depths of bitter addiction, drowning all but an aftertaste of the genre’s sweeter tendencies.

Tomas may be the film’s most obnoxious character (he habitually urinates almost wherever and whenever the urge arises), but not the only pathetic one. When Tomas’ unmanageability exasperates Kaisa to the point of giving up her mother’s quest of dragging him to Aberdeen, Helen resorts to the wild card of emotional blackmail. Kaisa herself is a functional cocaine abuser who smuggles her eight ball (an eighth-ounce) of the drug back into Britain in her panties. Her (and ultimately the writers’) choice of hiding place is apt: Sex seems to be as much or more of an obsessive compulsion for her as snorting coke.

It’s such details that subtly — perhaps too subtly — enrich Aberdeen. You might miss the link between setups, like the red balls on Kaisa’s office party crown, the shots that show a red clown’s nose on the key ring to her father’s (and her childhood) home, and the payoff that makes them and the color red itself a complex symbol simultaneously pregnant with the disappointment, courage and protection ultimately embodied in love.

Moland and Admunson string their plot together with these kinds of moments, leaving their story elliptical with potential or actual gaps in its exposition. If you blink, you might miss the shot of the legal books that identify Kaisa as a lawyer. (The only way I knew that Kaisa was based in London was from the film’s press kit.) Certain plot points serve as ironic deus ex machinas inexplicably complicating the story with no apparent motivation.

Yet the power of Skarsgård and Headey’s performances leaps over these breaches, driving them through Tomas and Kaisa’s difficulties, physical and emotional, to Aberdeen — which in this film may be the name of ironic redemption.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].