Jonas Chernick and Joey King light up Borealis: Canadian film joins list of revered road movies about eccentric single parents and their difficult children.
By Martin Knelman
Toronto Star; April 3, 2016
In my cinema memory bank, there's a favoured spot for road movies about eccentric single parents on the road with children of the opposite gender who turn into sparring mates.
One that comes instantly to mind is Paper Moon (1973), with Ryan O'Neal as a con artist on the go and his 8-year-old daughter Tatum O'Neal as the kid who tags along and out-cons him.
Even better: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), with Ellen Burstyn as a destitute widow taking off in pursuit of a singing career, accompanied by her wisecracking 11-year-old son (Alfred Lutter III).
Now there's a made-in-Manitoba movie we can happily add to that list. Borealis — which had its Toronto premiere the other day and opens in theatres on Friday — seems on the surface a chronicle about desperate people with troubled lives, but it's full of rich comic moments and euphoric revelations.
What makes it truly magical is the onscreen chemistry between Toronto actor Jonas Chernick, playing a deceitful and unemployed dad with a lethal gambling addiction, and rising L.A. teen star Joey King as the estranged pot-smoking daughter he is trying to reconnect with, even as she is about to go blind.
Plans for the movie had been in the works for a while, without King. Chernick, who grew up in Winnipeg and began his acting career there, has collaborated five times with Winnipeg director Sean Garrity. A perfect example of how they work was the surprise hit My Awkward Sexual Adventure (2012).
Chernick loves to play amusingly dysfunctional characters who get into trouble through their own fault. And to ensure there are enough roles like that to keep him busy as an actor, he has developed into an excellent screenwriter.
"I don't see myself as an action hero or a traditional leading man," he explained over coffee the other day. "I want to play characters who have serious flaws. But they should be likable guys who engage with the world in a way that makes you want to follow them."
Borealis was adapted from a short film Garrity made called Blind, inspired by an anecdote he'd heard about a family. In the hands of Jonas the screenwriter it became something completely different, with a wonderful role for Jonas the actor as an errant, disaster-prone father.
"This guy is well-intentioned, but he makes bad choices," Chernick said. "He thinks he's unbeatable at cards. He goes deep into debt owing money to dangerous people, putting his own life and his daughter's life in jeopardy. He deludes himself about the odds while trying to save himself."
He's also self-destructive and a liar, who hides the awful truth from his daughter.
In 2014, just as the film was ready to go into production, the actress who was to have played teenage daughter Aurora had to drop out. King, best known for her role in the TV series Fargo, was always on Chernick's dream list, but he never thought she would agree to work in a low-budget Canadian movie — especially since she was about to appear in Independence Day 2, expected to be Hollywood's summer 2016 blockbuster.
It was only because he was heartbroken at the thought of being forced to abandon the project that Chernick, who also wears a producing hat on the film, wrote a four-page letter to King.
Almost immediately, her representatives called the casting director of Borealis.
"We had a Skype call," says Chernick. "She was excited about the subject of impending blindness, about the fact that the way we work there's a lot of improvisation and freedom around the dialogue, so (she) could give the part her own voice. That's the way we work."
Early in their working relationship, it became clear to Chernick that King was not some 15-year-old spoiled, precocious Hollywood brat. (King turned 16 in July).
Her career has been under the watchful guidance of her mother, Jamie, who travels with her. "Despite living in Hollywood, she is very innocent when it comes to boys and drugs and peer pressure," says Chernick. "She's very grounded, an amazing kid who couldn't be destroyed by early fame."
Upon arrival in Winnipeg, after Chernick showed her around the studio, King said, "Let's go somewhere together and you can teach me how to smoke marijuana," which her character does in the film.
"We used a holistic herb," he adds.
King's prep also included learning how to play poker.
The shoot was done on location in Winnipeg and northern Manitoba, enhanced by the music score of Ari Posner, another Winnipeg-born Torontonian.
The plot turns on the fact that Aurora will soon be blind and, before that happens, her father not only needs to flee gangsters threatening him but also wants to take Aurora to Churchill to show her the Northern Lights before she is unable to see them.
In a way, it's a reversal of the famously poignant scene at the end of Chaplin's City Lights (1931) when the Little Tramp can at last be seen by the formerly blind flower girl whose sight has been miraculously restored.
The $2-million Borealis budget did not leave room for shooting the big scene in Churchill. Luckily, Chernick's mother was aware that Winnipeg's Assiniboine Zoo had recently opened a Journey to Churchill exhibit, including a polar bear enclosure.
Eureka! The filmmakers were able to play let's make a deal with the zookeepers.
And so the natural magic of Manitoba's northern sky blissfully collides with the human magic of Chernick's bumbling dad slouching toward the light and King's very smart daughter slipping into the dark.
I'd call the fade out positively Chaplinesque.
Distributed by Northern Banner Releasing, Borealis opens Friday at the Carlton and the Kingsway.