Like many recent English-language Canadian films, Sean Garrity's Borealis is overloaded with meandering pleasantries to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and rife with subplots to pad out what could have been a compelling short into an overlong 90-minute feature.
The film follows a stylistic trend of vaguely anonymous rural landscapes that translate well for festival audiences across the country, but falls victim to an overly generic plot, lacking any sort of interesting authorial voice. Garrity's aiming for a grittier sense of naturalism here, following his winning 2012 comedy My Awkward Sexual Adventure, but stumbles in the tonal execution. While he coaxes fine performances from his leads, especially young actress Joey King, the problem with Borealis lies in too many abrupt tonal shifts and a less-than-stellar script, marring what could have been a lovely dramedy.
Jonas Chernick stars as Jonah, a man struggling with a crippling gambling addiction. In the film's opening scene, Jonah finds himself owing a local mobster thousands of dollars, and goes on the run with his daughter, Aurora (King). Jonah's hiding a secret from Aurora: her vision disorder is about to render her completely blind. Character actor Kevin Pollak shows up as Tubby the bookie, who goes after Jonah to repay his debts by the end of the weekend, doing the best work of the three-hander ensemble with a broad role that's meant to suggest a larger world of underground gambling and seedy backroom deals. Meanwhile, Jonah tries desperately to make it to Manitoba, where he can show Aurora the Northern Lights one last time.
If this all reads as heightened melodrama, a kind of Italian neo-realism meets quirky Canadiana, it is, but the film could have worked better with a keener eye for drama. Garrity certainly plays up the sappier elements of the predictable plot, but does so with an awkward sense of self-awareness that doesn't feel right with the film's more serious first act. Yes, characters point out the irony of a character named Aurora going to see the Northern Lights, but the film can never decide what it wants to be. At some points along the way, Borealis tries to be a striking look at addiction, but Garrity never successfully pulls off the tricky balancing act of externalizing the struggles of gambling addiction in a compelling way, and falls especially flat when compared to the previous Canadian masterwork in a similar vein, 2003's Owning Mahowny.
While the film also tries to be a breezy family road trip comedy with a precocious teen, the dark subject matter is never quite pulled off with the tact a film like this requires. There are moments in the film where it feels like everyone got it almost right, but failed to land the execution, making the film feel more disappointing than bad.
Borealis is charming enough, and although it doesn't have much to say, it certainly comes from good intentions, and it's inarguably well made. It's disappointing to see Garrity produce something so generic and run-of-the-mill, especially after his earlier works like Blood Pressure, but the film is sure to win over audiences looking for a gentle story with solid performances.
(Northern Banner Releasing)