Unable to come up with the $93,645 in gambling debts he amassed at an underground poker game, widower and former contractor Jonah (Jonas Chernick) decides to go on the lam with his 15-year-old daughter Aurora (Joey King) reluctantly by his side. After ditching his understandably impatient current girlfriend (Emily Hampshire) and attempting to give the slip to the number runner he slighted (Kevin Pollack), Jonah throws together a plan to go from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba so Aurora can see the Northern Lights. Aurora suffers from a degenerative eye disease that has grown so aggressive that she’ll be blind within a month; one that Jonah hasn’t explained the full severity of to her. Aurora, fed up with her father’s lies already, has her own reasons for following Jonah along and plans to ditch him at some point. Can the father and daughter reconcile their differences, or will Jonah’s deceptions come back to haunt them?
Written by star Chernick and directed by frequent collaborator Sean Garrity, Borealis takes several familiar familial drama tropes and handles them with grace and nuance. The idea of a child on a road trip with a less than honest parent has been subject to many interpretations, but few can match Garrity and Chernick’s ability to mine great drama, comedy, and emotion from a simple structure based more around quietly charged arguments instead of giant showstopping fights and speeches.
A lot of the film’s credit comes down to sheer chemistry. While the effortless rapport between King and the unlikeable but strangely sympathetic Chernick takes centre stage, individual conversations between any two characters always feel organic and never boilerplate. Garrity delivers strong direction when needed, but he’s quite charitable towards a cast that understands how to underplay the material to get the most out of it.
There are some predictable plot hiccups here and there, but an important, previously unspoken character revelation around the hour mark makes one subtly reconsider Jonah’s choices and mindset. It goes by quickly, but here’s hoping perceptive audiences pick up on it.