Imagine if Disney’s Frozen took a realistic approach about self-discovery and identity. Strip away the jolly snowman, happiness, and musical numbers; what you would get is a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of Elle-Marja (played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok) who is stuck between a isolating childhood and the longing for adventure.
Yes, like all stories about teenagers trying to find their own identity, there is a mix of doubt, heartbreak, and confusion. However, Elle-Marja has the added bonus of racism; belonging to a dying culture fighting for its place in the Scandinavian world. Taking place in the brutal 1930’s, her kind, the Samis, are considered inferior un-Christian heathens with small brains appropriate for their nomadic lifestyle. Even the small boarding school she is forced to attend with her younger sister (Mia Erika Sparrok) is filled with hatred and discrimination instead of the kindness, acceptance, and love one may hope to receive.
So like all curious children who are told they’re not “good enough,” Ella-Marja does the opposite of what adults would do (because children have no fear) and disguises herself as a Swede to see just how different and “less than” others think she is if she’s one of their own. Instead of a word filled with hatred and judgment, she comes face to face with a life changing experience that forces her to decide whether to turn her back on her past or accept her new false identity. This a decision filled with complication, betrayal, and burdens of heritage that can forever change the course of Ella-Marja’s life.
Sami Blood is an unexpected surprise that punches you in the gut with the harsh effects of discrimination that is smart and creative enough to forge its own originality. Directed by the ingenious Amanda Kernell, the movie feels raw and authentic. Kernall has the know-how to take you on a journey reminiscent of a documentary that peeks into the life of Ella-Marja without forcing the story. Loosely based on Kernall’s grandmother, every scene and dialogue spoken is with purpose and precision. Instead of berating each character for their beliefs and actions (including Ella-Marja), you feel protective of them and understand the complexities of the characters and the story that’s filled with layers of emotion, new discoveries, and deceit.
While the Sami lifestyle is vastly different from the modern world’s, compared to the hectic environment of today, there’s a sense of longing to return to the simplicity of the Sami nomad life (minus the racism). Kernell further explores the Sami lifestyle and vastness of Sweden with picturesque cinematography that makes you long to visit. The Sami are connected to the land and filmed similar to a scene out of a National Geographic magazine. When these landscapes are replaced with Ella-Marja’s suffocating school, there’s the traditional Sami music there to ground Ella-Marja to her roots.
Despite the beauty, there are horrific moments that allow for Kernell to flourish even more as a director. During a violent dehumanizing scene, neither Kernell nor her camera flinches. She is bold and realistic with her choices; making us understand the dangers of the Sami lifestyle. There is beauty but there is also pain, injustice, and indifference.
Lene Cecilia Sparrok as Ella-Marja is a breath of fresh air. Going beyond showing her emotions in her face, Sparrok is able to act with just her eyes. Through her silence she expresses the pain and grief she’s gone through both in the past and the present. When she and the other children are treated like zoo animals by others, her eyes transform into confusion and embarrassment. Yet when she sneaks into the city, you see life slowly grow from within her. Then there are moments when she doesn’t say anything at all, yet she speak volumes with simple glances and intense stares.
Sami Blood is not perfect. The movie drags and take forever to unveil the long-term consequences of abuse and the after-effects of a violent act committed to Ella-Marja. It also lacks completion. By the second act, it becomes frustrating and starts to lose its impact. Instead of feeling satisfied, you’re just drained and confused by its ending. However, for a debut movie, these flaws are forgivable and at the end of the day. It’s filled with a talented cast and tells a powerful lesson of self discovery, hope, and what happens when we take charge of our lives — for the good and the bad.