Coming of age stories always intrigue me because of the identity shifts that occur. I like the personal examination and reflection on transition and how new territory ultimately changes and individual’s course in life. Sami-Swedish director and writer Amanda Kernell brings a moving and beautifully made coming-of-age tale in her Swedish debut, Sami Blood. It takes place in a rather haunting and hostile context during the 1930s, when the indigenous Sami people were under oppression by the Swedish.
She masterfully focuses on the effects of cultural boundaries and racism on an adolescent and how self-loathing dangerously brews and shifts the perception of self. She does this masterfully and aesthetically crafting tender-like moments that yield fleeting possibilities and sad realizations.
The film starts off with an old woman, Christina (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), who reluctantly attends her estranged sister’s funeral in Lapland with her son and grandson. She’s tense and distant, itching to get away from the Sami folk.
Rewind 30 years, Christina is 14-year-old Elle-Marja (Maj-Doris Rimpi), a bright and strong Sami teen who, with her younger sister, is sent to a Sami-only boarding school where they are taught that their people are inferior. They are reprimanded when they speak Sami – required only to speak Swedish and are physically examined like animals by a visiting medical team. These experiences incite a dangerous yet honest look at the challenges and consequences of societal assimilation at a young age.
Rimpi’s gives a stunning performance as the leading lady. She holds both her strength and self-loathing of her character with grace and determination. Not to mention, her face, though hard with grit, unfolds gracefully during times of wonder and helplessness. The several scenes where she embodies someone else is eye-opening not only for her but for us as the audience.
In this tale set in a context of oppression, Kernell is careful not to feed us with an abundance of remorse or pity. Rather, she invites us to connect with the process and transition. She conveys the logic in the young woman’s choices, validating her ideas and curiosity with delicate scenes that illustrate the tragedy of vulnerability at that age. Elle-Marja’s choices are a reminder that we can never run away from truth no matter the time and cultural boundaries have a significant impact on the people who we choose to be.