Just in case “Frozen” had you thinking the chief concerns of young girls in old Lapland were building snowmen and breaking magic spells, along comes “Sami Blood” to set the record straight. A moving, classically rendered coming-of-age tale set against the scarring social prejudices of the 1930s, this handsome debut feature from Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell robustly blends adolescent fears that resonate across borders and generations with a fascinatingly specific, rarely depicted cultural context: Sweden’s colonial oppression of the indigenous Sami folk. Following a single, strong-willed teenager as she is forced to choose between remaining with her people or pursuing the education and opportunities otherwise denied her, this stirring but pleasingly unsentimental tale has all the makings of a festival crowdpleaser, and introduces a poised, intelligent young talent in star Lene Cecilia Sparrok.
That “Sami Blood” is an international co-production between Sweden, Denmark and Norway is indicative in itself of how much more porous cultural boundaries have grown since the era depicted in the film, which sees the rural, largely reindeer-breeding Sami people routinely dismissed as “circus animals” and “filthy Lapps” by their privileged Swedish neighbors. (Shocking scenes of racial biology exams, whereby Sami children were poked, prodded and measured like prize cattle, serve to remind viewers that the Nazis were far from the only ones promoting fascistic genetics theory in Europe at the time.) The Sami, meanwhile, respond to such racism by fiercely upholding their native customs and costumes, proudly defending a rough-hewn, land-based lifestyle to which bright, knowledge-seeking 14-year-old Elle-Marja (Sparrok) can’t much relate.
Bookending Elle-Marja’s story is a quietly melancholic present-day narrative in which stern nonagenarian Christina (Maj Doris Rimpi) travels reluctantly to Lapland to attend the funeral of her estranged sister, accompanied by her son and granddaughter. While the latter two delight in the now-quaint Sami practices of yoik-singing and calf-marking, Christina seems actively traumatized by the homecoming.
As we flash back 80-odd years to the troubled, pastoral childhood of Elle-Marja, viewers should swiftly work out that the child and the old-timer are one and the same — though the circumstances by which she would spurn her family and change her name take a little longer to emerge. While an obedient daughter to her recently widowed mother, and sweetly protective of her younger sister Njenna (Sparrok’s own sister Mia Erika), Elle-Marja is showing the first signs of a hungry curiosity that extends well beyond the wild plains of her homeland, as she dreams of a cosmopolitan urban life in Uppsala. When she is violently bullied by local non-Sami boys, she responds as much with internalized shame as with self-defense.
When both sisters are dispatched to a draconian Sami-only boarding school, Elle-Marja spots a glimmer of an opportunity for escape and self-improvement, though even her outwardly kindly teacher pulls the door shut on more advanced education: “Studies have shown that your people can’t get by in town… you have to stay here or you’ll die out,” she is curtly told. As our young heroine does everything within her power to buck the system, Kernell’s script sharply delineates the different layers and textures of ceiling preventing her ascent: Brutal as the film’s depiction of institutional abuse and male-controlled community prejudice is, the condescension of those purporting to help is no less stinging. Though the film doesn’t return to the older Elle-Marja/Christina’s quandary until the close, the tonal contrast between its past and present depictions of Sami living needles the viewer throughout — as a bucolic way of life now regarded as sadly endangered is gradually filled out with an acute history of repression and self-loathing that Christina’s bemused son can consider himself lucky not to understand.
On screen as in memory, however, the pain of this impossible childhood is tempered with flashes of tenderness and lyricism: a halting first dance with a boy, for example, or a nervous introduction to lipstick. Kernell’s filmmaking resists both one-note austerity and rose-tinted adolescent nostalgia: Even the most ravishing sections of the film’s landscape are shot by cinematographers Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik in a rich range of blues that can connote idyllic tranquility or lowering threat with a subtle shift of the light. But it’s Sparrok’s quiet, searching debut performance that deserves substantial credit for “Sami Blood’s” delicately modulated tone. Blessed with a still gaze that can look hopefully defiant and utterly adrift all at once, she knots and loosens her body language according to who’s watching Elle-Marja, and how: When she slips on a drab house dress than nonetheless camouflages her ethnic-clothed Sami identity, she walks, however hesitantly, like one who has grown from being looked at to being seen.