Like most genres that have spent a fair amount of time in the cinematic sun, romantic comedies have begun to look worn, tired and more than a little wrinkled in recent years.
It’s not that recent entries have been bad as such, although goodness knows some have been, but simply that many of them, with some rare exceptions, haven’t really advanced the genre in any meaningful fashion nor taken it in any fresh new directions (save for the likes of Rich Young Asians and Always Be My Maybe which have added some much needed and long overdue diversity to the mix).
Aurora, from Finnish director Miia Tervo, does its upmost to break this dispiriting trend, offering up a romantic comedy (rom-com) that is all kinds of gritty and imperfect on its way to the inevitable happy ever after (there are something you should never ever mess with in this trope-heavy genre and a happy sigh-inducing final scene is most definitely one of them).
For much of its beautifully immersive running time, its actually doesn’t resemble a rom-com much at all.
Gone are the Nora Ephron-esque big city fairytale corporate gigs, lush impossible-for-anyone-but-a-billionaire apartments and quirky, advice-ready best friends with just enough spark to propel the protagonists to their Cupid-orchestrated destiny.
In their place, is a snow-covered locale – we’re not talking a light dusting of the stuff either; this is heavy duty, winter is not mucking about truckloads of snow that almost bury the Finnish town in which the film set in set – where there doesn’t appear to be all that much to do save for drinking and partying, the buildings have, for the most part, seen far better days and life doesn’t come close to offering any kind of magical leg-up to a more starry-eyed, glittering future.
The titular protagonist Aurora (Mimosa Willamo) is all too aware of the small, tarnished goldfish bowl in which she swims.
Working in a rundown beauty parlour with best friend Kinky (Oona Airola) where the only real talk of future advancement comes from moving to Norway to work in “colonics” – it’s spoken like some sort of holy grail that will summon a future worth giving a damn about – or, and no one is all that keen on this one, sending mail order panties to Japan.
Throw in a father (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) who is flailing after the death of his wife and Aurora’s mother, and you have a recipe for the kind of broken-down reality that sends a person to drink.
Which is precisely what Aurora does – a lot.
Her nights are rarely spent in the messy, disheveled apartment she and her father are about to be evicted from as she goes from a succession of hook-ups to drink and drug-fuelled from which she emerges more than a little the worse for wear.
She is, however, deep down a good person who is wanting something better from life, something that Iranian immigrant Darian (Amir Escandari) notices eventually, once he gets over Aurora’s crass, impolite and damn racist bravado when they first meet.
In the grand tradition of rom-coms everywhere, their “meet cute” is the clashing of polar opposites, less a coming together than an instant repelling – the setting, a dive of a burger grill is hardly the place to inspire eternal- gasp-inducing romance – and while you know in your head it’s a rom-com, it doesn’t make a thing of bringing the characters together.
Certainly the process is nowhere near as obvious as it is in most films of the genre which telegraph their narrative touchpoints so obviously and with such pronounced intensity that you can see the next step along the way to eternal bliss and happiness hundreds of kilometres out to sea.
Aurora is far more subtle and nunanced than that, helped by two characters who are each, in their own ways, as flawed as anyone we’ve seen in cinema.
While Aurora does have her redeeming qualities, such as her devotion to Kinky and their imagined shared future and to her home care patient Liisa (Miitta Sorvali) with she bonds almost instantly thanks to a rebellious streak that both delight in, often to their own detriment, she is also an alcoholic, someone who is sinking fast into her own problems to such an extent that you wonder if she’ll pull out from her near-suicidal dive in time.
Her life is as far from fairytale New York perfect as you can get and yet it’s these flaws, completed with an underlying tenacious verve that circumstances haven’t quite snuffed out yet, which make her such an endearing, robustly substantial character, the kind whose path to eventual path feels incredibly hard and authentic, despite the film’s understandable tilts to damn near obligatory rom-com tropes.
Darian too, while a far more sympathetic, wiser character, and the father to eight-year-old Azar (Elá Yildirim) to whom he is protectively devoted following the death of his wife, has more than his fair of troubles, the kind that would suggest happy ever after endings are not his to consider or embrace.
A refugee from Iran who has fled undisclosed discrimination and oppression, he has moved his way through the middle east into Europe in seach of somewhere the has the potential to feel like home.
In ways affectingly big and movingly, small, Aurora depicts the plight of many refugees who, despite the help of self-sacrificing social workers like Tiina (Ria Kataja), and her long-suffering husband Juha (Chike Ohanwe) who invite him and his daughter into her home, find their path to a place called home strewn with multiple endless obstacles.
The obvious solution is to marry a Finn, something Darian initially rejects then embraces when all other channels prove to be empty of real promise.
Aurora initially sets out to do little more than grudgingly help Darian someone to marry, a task which involves a reluctant near to death lesbian, a dog and an over-zealous woman named Ulla (Pamela Tola) who, despite a raft of assumptions about who Darian is and what he has faced as a refugee, proves to be his best bet.
But of course, she not! Aurora is but the path to any kind of union is abortive, broken and littered with the flawed execution of best intentions, all of which give this remarkably deep, funny, clever, insightful and emotionally-evocative film, the kind of real world bumps and bruises that most rom-coms never come close to sporting.
Aurora is wholly satisfying because while it gives us a happy ending, it does so with the kinds of smart performances, whipsmart script and acknowledgement of real world issues that imbue the film with a sense of love down in the trenches, the kind that doesn’t simply drop into your lap (so to speak) but which must be fought for every step of the way, making it all the more valued and important when it finally arrives.