A Film with Vision

(Canada, 95 min.)
Dir. Sean Garrity, Writ. Jonas Chernick
Starring: Jonas Chernick, Joey King, Kevin Pollak, Emily Hampshire, Clé Bennett
Aurora (Joey King) can’t see her father. Jonah (Jonas Chernick) can’t see his daughter. Aurora experiences a rare form of degeneration in her young blinkers that erodes her eyesight. Jonah, on the other hand, fails to see Aurora through a veil of wilful blindness. (Less rare an affliction.) What the two lack in vision they come to share in perspective as Borealis takes the father and daughter on a considerately affecting road trip. The reward at the end of their journey is a remarkable sight.

Jonah’s crippling short-sightedness is abundantly clear in his dangerous gambling addiction, as Borealis opens with the deadbeat dad doubling down to loan shark Tubby (Kevin Pollak) and blowing it all with a pair of aces. One hundred grand in the hole isn’t the worst loss during this day, either, as Jonah receives terrible news about Aurora’s dwindling vision shortly after losing the game. In his graver act of Bad Parenting, Jonah opts not to tell his daughter that she’s going completely blind.

One can't have Aurora without the borealis, though, and the script by Chernick uses a fine bit of wordplay to complete the young woman, or at least her father's vision of her, as Jonah decides to forget about his debt and make good by taking Aurora to see the northern lights. He holds on to a memory of the aurora borealis as the finest sight of his life, which he shared with his late wife on their honeymoon and he wants his daughter to witness this majestic image before her eyes fail.

Chernick reunites with My Awkward Sexual Adventure director Sean Garrity, along with Emily Hampshire, his co-star from the Canuck comedy, who gives a notable supporting turn as Kyla, Jonah's considerate but no-nonsense girlfriend. The team shows the range of their versatility after the raunchy rom com, while Garrity’s hand at family-oriented cinema shows a hand at dramatic sophistication after last year’s fun and fluffy After the Ball. The film offers strong, dynamic characters with an engaging and accessible screenplay that builds its personalities and themes together as Jonah and Aurora make the journey to Churchill, Manitoba to see the borealis.  DP Samy Inayeh artfully harnesses sun beams and lens flare to evoke the final threads of light that Aurora sees--and the inspiring warmth that Jonah envisions with his trip to Churchill.

The film uses the road movie’s image of progress to chart the relationship between the father and his daughter, and it’s definitely a bumpy ride as each traveller reconciles his or her ideals with misleading mirages that prevent him or her from taking a straight path. Aurora clings to the false hope of aid from a mysterious stranger with amazing weed, while Jonah keeps playing the short game and putting his relationship with Aurora on the line as he pushes his luck with Tubby. Tubby, meanwhile, offers Borealis a few detours as the film intercuts his pursuit of Jonah along with his affluent strongman Brick (Clé Bennett) and Aurora’s pet dog in tow as collateral.

Pollack’s presence affords Borealis some significance as the film draws upon his persona from films like The Usual Suspects and Casino to offer a comically unhinged gangster. The film finds a few tonal inconsistencies as Tubby and Bennett antagonise Jonah with deadpan cartoonish violence, but as their presence threatens to destabilise the bond that Jonah creates with Aurora, the ruptures often work to the film’s advantage as they provide gaps that Jonah needs to bridge in order to protect his daughter. As Aurora, King gives an eye-opener of a performance as a young woman grappling with revelations that are cruelly mature for someone her age to bear. Her completely natural performance draws the viewer into Aurora’s innocence and naïveté, thus making one feel as protective of her as Jonah should be while seeing Aurora’s vulnerability as products of her father’s failings as a parent. Jonah isn't going to win father of the year and his motivation seems somewhat escapist given the looming gambling debt, but Chernick capably sells his protagonist as a fallible man who doesn’t know how to be a father. He's been too scared to bet, yet he has a good heart to compensate for future hands. In poker terms, he's going all in and the borealis is his river card: it’s the turn of fate between a win and a loss.

Like a rounder having a firm sense of the game at hand and the players at the table, though, Borealis surprises with its final images along the family’s journey. In an ironic, yet poignant, vision, Borealis rejects closure and gives audiences a bittersweet finale that feels authentically satisfying. It throws the audience a wild card and lands a winner.

Borealis opens in Toronto at the Carlton and the Kingsway on Friday, April 8.
It opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair on May 27.