Breaking away from family is more than mere teen rebellion in “Sami Blood,” an eloquent coming-of-age drama set in 1930s Sweden that revolves around a spellbinding performance by young Lene Cecilia Sparrok.
For Elle-Marja, the tough and quick-witted 14-year-old at the charged center of the film, eye-opening exposure to systematic racism convinces her that the only way to be true to herself is to adopt a new identity. Rejecting her cultural heritage as one of the indigenous Sami, she reinvents herself as Swedish, embarking on a course that’s both exhilarating and bruising.
Writer-director Amanda Kernell’s assured first feature has a classic sheen, but with its powerful sense of place and sensitive performances, it’s no fusty museum piece. Compellingly rooted in the experiences of her young protagonist, the film is fully alive, with newcomer Sparrok’s often wordless portrayal as luminous as it is discerning.
At a boarding school for Sami children, star pupil Elle-Marja is pawed at, measured like a specimen and subjected to a milder version of the eugenics that would soon convulse Europe. Further studies are a pipe dream; the curriculum is designed to lift students just enough from their assumed backwardness before sending them home to their reindeer-herding families.
Galvanized, Elle-Marja abandons her language and traditions and ventures out into the world. Scenes of her elderly self suggest the emotional toll of her actions. Sparrok’s burning gaze makes clear the cost of not taking them.
In Swedish and Sami with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica