[TIFF 2018] REVIEW: ‘Border’ unlocks emotion and cultural commentary in a bonkers movie about trolls

Eva Melander stars as Tina in  Border , directed by Ali Abbasi.

Eva Melander stars as Tina in Border, directed by Ali Abbasi.

A Swedish drama about trolls – not the kind on the Internet – is exactly the type of movie you come to TIFF to see. It’s the sort of release unlikely to open widely in North America, or even be easy to find on disc or streaming services. It thrives on word of mouth between film fans, and the filmmakers seem to know it; at the premiere screening, the director asked us, somewhat self-consciously, “Was it too weird for you?”

The noteworthy detail about Border, however, is that it transcends the high-level logline and manages to be about more than a misunderstood female troll living in modern-day Sweden. It folds in commentary about forced cultural assimilation, racism, romantic relationships, and even child abuse. And while some of the imagery can make the work difficult to take completely seriously, there’s no denying that the film was made with a lot of commitment and heart, which is more than you can say for some fantasy/monster movies.

The second feature by Ali Abbasi, Border introduces us to Tina (Eva Melander) a troll working as a border guard at a ferry dock. The crucial detail, though, is that Tina doesn’t know she’s a troll; she believes her calloused face and protruding teeth are merely the result of a “chromosome flaw” she’s possessed since birth. There is one advantage, however: a sense of smell that exceeds even that of a bloodhound’s, making it possible for her to smell contraband going through her workplace and even the emotions of humans.

Tina is decently happy at work, but she lives with a human quasi-boyfriend named Roland who doesn’t pay much attention to her, and her father is slowly declining in a retirement home. One day, however, she crosses paths with someone who looks like her: a troll named Vore (Eero Milonoff) who seems to be much more in touch with his identity. Tina invites Vore to stay on her property as a lodger, setting up a series of events that eventually find Tina learning more and more about her true self, while also being exposed to the nasty history of her people and the radical beliefs that Vore stands for.

Tina runs into another troll named Vore (Eero Milonoff).

Tina runs into another troll named Vore (Eero Milonoff).

For viewers plugged into current affairs, perhaps the first thing Border will seem to reference is the ongoing debate in Sweden and much of Europe over the immigration crisis. The fact that Tina works as a border guard and that she belongs to a different species invites the idea that Abbasi is simply playing on the structure of an immigrant becoming an authority figure, and finding herself defending the border against others with the same background. But the true conflict is more internal: Tina spends much more time trying to reconcile her upbringing as a human with the revelation that she’s a troll. As Abbasi explained at the screening, the border of the title is actually between Tina’s two identities, and how she chooses which parts to let in and which parts to cast out.

This character study only makes up about half the screenplay. Abbasi works in a subplot about Tina’s decision to help the local police with an investigation into a child pornography ring, as well as a romance between Tina and Vore that culminates in one of the weirder sex scenes you’ll probably ever see outside of some dark corner of the Internet. These components don’t necessarily flow into one harmonious ensemble, but Abbasi deserves some credit for exploring the broader implications of a world where the co-existence of trolls and humans is an accepted reality.

As the leads, Melander and Milonoff deserve notice as well. As we saw in Netflix’s Bright last year, even strong performers like Joel Edgerton can be buried in prosthetic makeup and have their talents utterly obscured (the script also didn’t help in that case). But Melander and Milonoff push past the technical restrictions imposed by the troll makeup and deliver moving performances. The best comparison might be to Andy Serkis’ performance capture work in the new Planet of the Apes movies; by closely studying animal behaviour and blending it with human emotion, the actors are able to shine through the artifice.

All of this being said, Border still requires an open mind, and some of visuals may be enough to turn away casual viewers. It’s interesting, though, that the movie courts a broader audience with its themes than the midnight madness crowds you might expect. If nothing else, Border is worth a look just to familiarize yourself with an emerging talent; after this film, I have no idea what Abbasi might cover next, but I have a feeling it could be great.

Border gets three stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • After bringing up Bright, now all I can think about is how much better Border is with creating a world where fantasy creatures are part of the social fabric.

  • I was unaware of the similarities between the Nordic folklore about trolls and British/Celtic folklore about fairies.

  • Some actors gain or lose weight for award-contender roles, but apparently Melander and Milonoff gained weight for a troll movie – that’s commitment!