Border (Abbasi, 2018)

This is quite the mish-mash. A heaping of Scandinavian folklore here, a sprinkle of gritty police procedural there. It ping-pongs between the two genres with intriguing results. Its feet are firmly planted in reality, but the folklore elements give it a sense of atemporality. It seems to exist in one time and in no time, which helps the more allegorical thrust of this story. Perhaps I am not the only one to read the mystery of Tina’s parentage as an indirect criticism of societies that are culpable of stealing children from one culture and trying to assimilate them into another. As a Canadian, I had the Sixties Scoop on my mind as soon as I was aware of how the troll-as-Other trope was being used. Google it if you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about. It’s not strictly a Canadian shame. It’s happened in other countries under different names and situations. It all amounts to the same thing in the end: cultural genocide.

What discomfits me somewhat about Border is how shamelessly it does its tit-for-tat exchange so that Tina can ultimately decide she doesn’t want to be evil for evil’s sake. The whole child pornography subplot, in itself sensitive subject matter for any film to tackle, let alone this one, is treated rather cavalierly for my taste. It’s made even worse when it balloons into an awful child trafficking ring involving troll embryos and changelings, all of which is only there to underline the moral decisions Tina must make. Tina is repulsed by them, as are we… but is that all they’re there for? All that sickening, triggering material just so that someone can decide they’d rather not be a monster? Perhaps if it were handled with more tact and sensitivity, I could see it working. When it’s bulldozed into the narrative and not given enough substance, well, then we have a problem. It’s not something you can get away with if you’re not careful.

The cultural genocide aspect, intentional or not, comes off better. Maybe it’s because it’s not made to be a central focus, and can thus arise on its own accord. It’s also helped along by Eva Melander’s powerful performance, which adds an affective layer that the child pornography plot is otherwise lacking. Melander just sells the hell out of it, even with all the prosthetics on her face. She hones in on all the character’s insecurity and resentment and unleashes a veritable storm of emotion that invites connection rather than distance. Her scenes with her adoptive father are some of the film’s best, most trenchant moments. I actually preferred them to a lot of Eero Milonoff’s scenes—mostly because I didn’t think Milonoff gave an interesting performance.

I liked many things about Border and disliked others. There’s something about its aura that keeps drawing me in, even though I take issue with how it handles its sensitive subject matter. Take it as a hesitant endorsement. As much as it is wildly imperfect, it also builds a convincing world that deserves some admiration.