One of the most pleasant surprises of the Edmonton International Film Festival was a film made by Winnipeg director Sean Garrity, written by, and starring, fellow Winnipegger Jonas Chernick and filmed entirely in Manitoba (including scenes filmed in my favourite Manitoba haunt, Birds Hill Park). It’s rare enough to watch a Manitoba film; for a Manitoba film to hold its own amongst a top-quality selection of international indie films borders on miraculous.
What makes Borealis as good as it is are the terrific performances from a topnotch cast, including Joey King, who steals the film as Aurora, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Jonah (Chernick). Aurora is rapidly losing her eyesight, but her father doesn’t have the heart to tell her she is about to go blind. Haunted by his wife’s (Aurora’s mother) suicide, Jonah has become a compulsive gambler, accumulating a massive debt, owed to local Winnipeg loan sharks.
Kevin Pollack, another inspired casting choice (in the Q&A after the film, we learn that Pollack once worked with Chernick), plays Tubby, the thug responsible for collecting the debt. Suffering from anger-management issues (among other things), Tubby can be warm and ice cold as he tries to do his job, accompanied by Brick (Cle Bennett) Tubby’s calm reasonable sidekick. It’s all very Tarantinoesque, but with an understated Manitoba edge that works well.
Indeed, the entire film succeeds in feeling very much like a Manitoba story. It’s a dark suspense film and a dark drama, but this road film also has a light edge and some moments of genuine Manitoba humour. On the negative side, Garrity should not (in my opinion) have shot scenes in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg that represented scenes in Flin Flon and Churchill (northern Manitoba). As someone who has lived in both of those towns, it was too easy to see that most of the Flin Flon scenes (for example) were not filmed in Flin Flon. Since the filmmakers did do some filming in northern Manitoba, I wish they had decided to avoid such problems.
Other flaws include an underdeveloped story and underdeveloped characters, which take a toll on the dramatic part of the story, which is otherwise original and fascinating.
Nevertheless, for a Manitoba film, Borealis is a wonderful entertaining film of high quality. For that reason alone (and Birds Hill Park), I can’t give Borealis less than ***+. My mug is up. Watch for it in January.