A Finnish party girl falls in love with an Iranian refugee in “Aurora,” an enjoyable dramedy from helmer-writer Miia Tervo. Unspooling during snowy winter in rugged Finnish Lapland, the exuberant narrative cleverly exploits the location and unconventional characters to add something fresh to familiar romantic comedy beats. Despite its raucous surface and frequently risqué Finnish culture jokes, the film is suffused with tenderness and melancholy. Moreover, it poignantly addresses some big themes — including the plight of asylum seekers and female alcoholism — while capturing the feelings of restlessness derived from being stuck in a remote place with a lack of opportunity. After opening the recent Göteborg Film Festival, it will make its U.S. premiere at SXSW in March.
Like her namesake, the northern lights, the eponymous twentysomething is a force of nature. Aurora (Mimosa Williamo, in a go-for-broke performance) is a wild, commitment-phobic, good-time girl with a drinking problem that she denies. She’s fed up with her unsatisfying life as a low-paid nail technician in Rovaniemi, better known as the arctic hometown of Santa Claus; she wants to go to Norway, where she hears that giving colonics will bring in big bucks. But her bankrupt, alcoholic father (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) is entering rehab for the umpteenth time and the bank has repossessed their apartment and worldly goods, so she must bunk in with best friend Kinky (Oona Airola) while figuring out a way to fund her move.
Also in dire need of a place to stay is the Iranian refugee Darien (Amir Escandari, the Iranian-born, Finland-based writer-director of “Pixadores,” here exercising a compelling charm in his acting debut) and his sweet young daughter Azar (Ela Yildrim). While they luck into temporary accommodation with a compassionate doctor (Ria Kataja) and her grumpy husband (Chike Ohanwe, especially good), Darien learns that the fastest road to permanent residency lies through marriage.
When Aurora and Darien, both at their most desperate, accidentally meet at a local hot dog stand, the fateful encounter leads to an agreement of sorts: In return for a significant sum of euros, Aurora will help him find a wife — and educate him about Finnish women to boot. Of course, her unlikely suggestions represent temporary obstacles to what viewers recognize as the natural romantic-comedy solution, but as pictured by Tervo, they are a lot of fun to watch, particularly Darien’s near-miss wedding with a dignified Karelian elder.
As Darien and Aurora both stubbornly resist the chemistry between them, Darien takes up with a do-gooder artisan whose unusual millinery creations would not be out of place in Dr. Seuss’ “500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” and who just might provide the solution to his problems. But genre rules win out and eventually the right couple navigates their way through the pitfalls of loss and alcoholism into true love.
Tervo’s brassy, feminist screenplay benefits from her knowledge of life in her native Lapland, where the women are strong and outspoken, and as apt to knock back a few too many drinks as their male counterparts. The salty, non-PC dialogue includes some good jokes (“What’s the first thing the Finnish soldier does after returning from the Winter War? Make love to his wife. What’s the second thing? Make love to his wife again. What’s the third thing? Take off his skies.”) and some unusual terms of endearment. She also makes smart use of well-chosen music to communicate unspoken depths of feeling as well as to delineate cultural specificity.
Charismatic star Williamo proves herself more than game as she totters through ice and snow clad in mini-skirts and high heels. International casting agents should also take note of her good looks and fluent English. The flavorsome lensing by Arsen Sarkisiants combines arctic grit with icy lyricism, while the colorful production design adds further notes of fun.