Running time: 95 mins.
Classification: None yet
Release Date: TBD North America Jan. 2016
“Borealis”, the latest from Canadian Director Sean Garrity, is the reason I stand in long lines at the Vancouver Film Festival every year. It’s the hope of discovering something fresh, quirky, and truthful wrapped up in a good story. Like a soft blanket on a Manitoba Winter night, “Borealis” is the kind of film you can throw on, and feel instantly warmed by. Which isn’t to say it’s a cuddly, happy film. Far from it. The director, and writer/actor Jonas Chernick, spoke before the screening, and warned the audience that this wasn’t a comedy, as some reviews have apparently characterized it. While there are certainly humorous elements, to take the buffoonery of low-level criminal Tubby Finkelman, hilariously played by Kevin Pollak, at face value, is to ignore the wonderfully nuanced performances happening above that. It is a risky choice to play some of the comedy as broadly as Garrity does here, especially the bits involving Pollak and Henchman ‘Brick’. Early on it felt like an unsteady balancing act of farce and melodrama, with mixed results. However, once we move past the set-up, the film settles into its wonderfully enjoyable road movie charm, with a wholly original spin on father/daughter bonding, including Jonah (Chernick) flailing awkwardly in a wheat field as he attempts to dance to his daughter’s trance music whilst stoned out of his mind.
There have been a number of high-profile films this year at VIFF about father/daughter relationships, and both the writer and director spoke later about how they based much of the story on relationships they had with their fathers. Their attention to the emotional fragility of adolescence, and the complex relationship between Aurora (Joey King) and her father Jonah shines through here. King, already a Hollywood veteran at a young age, strikes just the right note of angst tempered with vulnerability, as well as an amazing inner strength beyond her years. An equally engaging film at VIFF this year, “The Daughter”, also features a similar, strong female role from newcomer Odessa Young, but that film follows a more theatrical, structured narrative, based on a 19th Century play by Henrik Ibsen. Hollywood’s mom-less entry into VIFF this year, “Louder Than Bombs”, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, treads much of the same territory, with a father (Gabriel Byrne) struggling to connect with a moody, angry son, years after his wife has committed suicide. Where “Bombs” is loud and stylized, both in acting and composition, “Borealis” is intimate and personal, and feels instantly more authentic.
At the start of the film, Jonah learns that his daughter only has a few weeks left before her deteriorating eye-sight is completely gone, and she becomes permanently blind. Deep in gambling debt, muddling through life without much interest after his wife’s suicide, Jonah decides to turn his flight from bookie Tubby (Pollak) into a cross-country journey with his daughter, to have her see the Northern Lights before her vision is gone. Unable to bring himself to share the news with Aurora that she only has weeks of sight left, he convinces her to accompany him on this journey by agreeing to a hilarious set of conditions that any parent of a teenage child will immediately appreciate; listening only to her music, no questioning of any kind, and ultimately granting her emancipation when their journey concludes. Typical of the smart, witty dialogue throughout, there is a great scene in a diner where Jonah attempts to get around these conditions by communicating with his daughter in the form of questions posed as statements. The humor and connection between the two actors feels authentic and natural throughout, with an almost improvisational quality to it, not unlike King’s other recent indie film, “Wish I Was Here.”
At times some of the broad comedy with Pollak feels like it could have been in a different, albeit hilarious caper film, something of a combination between “Midnight Run” and “Get Shorty.” I asked Garrity and Chernick about this disparity after the screening, and they both acknowledged that it was a tricky balancing act to keep the comedy from overwhelming the drama, and vice-versa. They indicated there were some great over-the-top comedic moments, especially from Pollak, that had to be left on the cutting room floor, and might make a DVD extras reel one day. Ultimately, without the comedic levity, the film may have been too somber, and one-note, for the warmth of the performances to come through, so I appreciate the balance they attempted to strike even if it didn’t always mesh perfectly.
If you’re a fan of smart, well-made independent drama, with plenty of laughs throughout, mark your calendars to catch this film when it comes out early next year. It’s well worth a look, and is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, both in and out of the Festival.