A man uses a father/daughter road trip to flee his debts and his demons in this uneven but effective drama.
A collision at the intersection of tragedy and addiction can leave countless emotional fragments strewn across life’s road. Decisions already handicapped by the perpetual specter of compulsive demons become further clouded by the blinding pain of raw emotion brought on by an unthinkable happening. Eventually, the consequences of the initial collision produce decisions that create consequences of their own, until life becomes nothing more than a spiraling series of missteps taken in an attempt to correct each previous misstep. Borealis, a comedy-sprinkled drama from writer Jonas Chernick and director Sean Garrity, looks at the victim of one such collision, a man whose years-long addiction and years-old tragedy have put him in a position to make a series of increasingly poor choices that not only threaten his safety, but the safety of his 15-year-old daughter.
That man is Jonah (screenwriter Chernick), his addiction is gambling, and the tragedy that befell him was the death of his wife and mother to their only child, Aurora (Joey King). After years of emotionally-charged bad decisions, Jonah finds himself in deep debt to Tubby (Kevin Pollak). The bad news about Tubby is he works for a loan shark. The worse news is that Tubby and Jonah go back to when they were kids, so Tubby finds a soft spot when Jonah wants to borrow money to place a bet. One cry of “all-in” later Jonah is $100,000 in the red.
Jonah’s day gets worse. Not long after playing the biggest losing hand of his life, his daughter’s eye doctor tells him that her eyesight, which has already been riddled with disease, has grown so bad that she will be completely blind in weeks. Unable to break the devastating medical news to the daughter he already has a fractured relationship with, and unable to meet the demands of Tubby and his hired muscle Brick (Clé Bennett), Jonah drags his reluctant little girl on a road trip to see the Northern Lights—partly to give her a fleeting glimpse of something he considers to be indescribably beautiful, and partly to avoid the financially painful inevitability.
For a 95-minute drama with only three primary players and three supporting players, Borealis attempts to do a lot. This is a blessing for the film. It provides a wide open space for its considerable talent to put on display a litany of emotions and memories, plus it affords opportunities for the story to avoid cliché. But the film’s “don’t just swing for the fences, swing for the parking lot” approach is inevitably its curse, as the supersaturation of backstories, plot lines, ideas, and character motivations become more than the filmmakers can handle.
The core of the story is wonderful. This father and daughter—a fractured pair as a result of mom’s passing, yet also individually broken by addiction and disease—are thrust into a unique circumstance. They are being chased as a result of one’s flaw while simultaneously chasing the clock as a result of the other’s flaw. This alone is fertile ground for emotional exploration, and adding an interesting circumstance to the mother’s death makes it even more compelling.
But that circumstance—or rather, the ripple effect from it—is never examined below surface-level. Clearly Jonah (and most likely Aurora) has been affected by this loss, and surely the loss has influenced the survivors’ behavior and contributed to the distance between them, but it is only presented to either generate pity or take a shortcut to an emotional goal; it’s never presented as a real catalyst for dysfunctional behavior.
Everything else in the film suffers from this same problem. It isn’t a case of superficiality so much as it’s a case of underdevelopment. Things like Jonah’s gambling and Aurora’s vision loss—real meaty topics—are only heavy character traits and high-level cause-and-effect cases. Other things like the childhood relationship between Tubby and Jonah, and the adult relationship between Jonah and his current flame Kyla (Emily Hampshire), are presented like early concept musings, not fully developed relationships. What remains after all of these missed chances is another road picture, a film about getting from Point A to Point Z, with stops at B through Y along the way.
It’s frustrating because these ideas are terrific as individual notions and as a creative collective. They’re also perfectly enjoyable presented as they are, but they are ultimately unsatisfying.
There are, though, some very satisfying parts of this film, led by great performances. Chernick shines as the father with all the wrong answers and the weight of the world—a world he helped create, both as a father and a gambler—on his shoulders. King is marvelous as the teen who is too angry with her father to help mend their relationship and too proud to let her deteriorating eye condition stop her from doing what she wants. And Pollak delivers the goods as the hard-ass with the soft spot.
The humor sprinkled throughout is genuinely funny, even if it doesn’t quite fit. Instead of providing a respite from the drama, the humor actually undercuts it. It’s an example of one more thing the filmmakers attempt to stuff into a picture that is already jammed with so much concept. Still, funny is funny.
There’s a lot to admire about Borealis, but the film sags under the weight of its own ambition, loading up on many solid concepts but never developing any of them thoroughly enough to do the film a greater good. Still, Borealis is very much worth seeking out, particularly for the performances by Chernick, King, and Pollak.
This review was originally published on October 7, 2015 as part of our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival.