The reindeer-herding indigenous Sami of old Lapland and their racial shaming by the Swedes gives this coming-of-age drama plenty of bite. The Sami believe the Swedes consider them “circus animals” and Elle-Marje is a product of this racism. The film opens with her in old age, reluctantly and truculently attending her sister’s funeral, where the Sami mourners sullenly glare at her. Elle-Marje has lived among the Swedes since her school years, she now speaks only Swedish and refuses to admit to her Sami heritage.
A very lengthy flashback to the 1930s shows the life of the teenage Elle-Marje (a remarkable performance from Lene Cecilia Sparrok) as she is taunted by the Swedes for her body odor; paraded naked for anthropological photographs and facial and cranial measurements; held down while her ear is mutilated by Swedish boys imitating the Sami custom of cutting the ears of their reindeers; and blithely informed by her school teacher at a Sami-only boarding school that her race is not intelligent enough to be educated, let alone leave the mountains to live in Uppsala.
But Elle-Marje, now calling herself Christina, makes the journey anyway, seeking support from a wealthy bourgeois Swedish boy who takes an interest in her, while sleeping rough in Uppsala parks and demanding admittance to further education.
It’s an accomplished first feature for writer-director Amanda Kernell, herself of Sami and Swedish origins. Anthropology allows her to transcend the familiar coming-of-age story, yet it’s her detailed knowledge of Sami life that distinguishes this film. In a birthday party in Uppsala, apparently well-meaning Swedish teenagers ask Christina to sing them a yoik, a traditional Sami song-chant. It’s a scene clearly meant to convey the patronizing effects of cultural tourism, but much of the film, and the strength of the film, lies with the very same cultural detail. I’m not sure Kernell has entirely avoided presenting the Sami as “circus animals”.