Amanda Kernell's scrupulously shaped coming-of-rage drama opens with Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), an elderly woman wearing sparkling pearls and a pitiless countenance, turning bitterly obstinate when taken back to the Lapland of her birth for her sister's funeral. She'll speak to no one, vows not to stay the night, and has zero tolerance for displays of yoik, the local throat singing. Stuck in a hotel despite her protestations, she watches a helicopter lift, the green-humped mountains behind it frosted at the peaks. The world around her is gorgeous, a true pleasure to regard, and she stares at that chopper as if it were her only possible rescue from damnation.
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Then we flash back eight decades. Sami Blood plunges into the origins of that anger, examining with rare anthropological acuity the abuse of the indigenous Sami people of northernmost Europe — “the filthy Lapps,” we hear a blond boy spit as young Christina (now named Elle-Marja and played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok) troops through the woods with her schoolmates. Writer-director Kernell, making an auspicious debut, expertly tracks Elle-Marja's adolescent development — her longings, the process of growing into her own body — and her realization that, no matter her intelligence or aptitude, Sweden offers nothing to a Sami beyond the plains she was born on.
At a remote girls' boarding school, Elle-Marja is mistreated and condescended to. Older local boys bully and then, when she talks back, knock her down and slice open her ear, a little hornily, the sequence echoing an earlier moment in which Elle-Marja tags the ear of one of her family's reindeer. The most wrenching scene concerns the examination and evaluation of the Sami girls by an ethnographic quack: He measures their skulls like he's judging produce at a fair, and then demands that they pose nude for photographs. It's Elle-Marja who must disrobe first, and it's in Sparrok's tearful, terrified defiance that we first see the anger that will give her the will to escape — and that, in her 90s, will not have softened.
Sparrock's performance is courageous and compelling. Quiet and observant despite that rage and will, Elle-Marja learns from each slight and wound she endures. When her teacher will not help her get into a university-track school — a Sami, she is told, cannot handle the curriculum — Elle-Marja resolves to find a way out. When she discovers that the Swedish boys don't necessarily know that she is Sami if she's not wearing her school clothes, she uses her body to get close to them, and to score a place to stay. When her mother tells her the family will not sell a reindeer to pay for the education Elle-Marja has brazened her way into — well, let's just say our heroine severs her ties to home irrevocably. Kernell and her prodigiously talented lead make Elle-Marja's hardest decision both a terrible surprise and a clear inevitability.
Matter-of-fact in its scenecraft but searing in its content, Sami Blood is about girlhood and racism, passing and escape. It's also about guilt, about the toll taken on a life of rejecting one's minority origins in accordance with (and in defiance of) the majority's unjust prejudice. The finale finds a 90-year-old Elle-Marja — now Christina — flooded with grief about the family she left behind. It's overwhelming.