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Fictionalized Version of An Inuit’s Quest for Climate Justice Disappoints

In Review: Chloe & Theo

Chloe & Theo is one of those films in which the backstory of how it came to be is far more intriguing than the movie itself. That story has to do with an Inuit elder from the Canadian Arctic who, through the graces of a well-meaning socialite, wound up in Los Angeles around Christmas 2006.

CHLOE & THEO TRAILER from Spotlight Pictures on Vimeo.

Theo Ikummaq wanted to talk — hopefully with the powers that be — about how rising global temperatures and melting glaciers were impacting his icy homeland and his people, and to press for urgent climate action. Ikummaq managed to do some rounds of the LA party circuit and bend a few sympathetic ears his way, but no one stepped up to help him take his message to “the-people-who-matter.” At least not right away. A disillusioned Ikummaq returned home to the Inuit hamlet of Igloolik in Nunavut, northern Canada, where he works as a conservation officer.

Now, it so happened that Lloyd Philips, the Oscar­winning producer of Inglorious Basterds and The Tourist, who Ikummaq met at one of those LA soirees, did find his story compelling enough to take action. Philips called his friend, Monica Ord, an entrepreneur and consultant who had spent nearly two decades in the life sciences industry, helping develop promising therapies for HIV/AIDS and other immunological deficiency disorders. Lloyd felt that, given her connections to high-profile people supportive of her work, Ord might be able to help Ikummaq.

Deeply moved by Ikummaq’s story, Ord in turn, contacted Richard Branson, the billionaire maverick founder of Virgin Group who had helped her on various projects in the past. She broached the idea of traveling to the Arctic together to document the impact of climate change in the region first hand. Branson apparently agreed in a jiffy and by February 2007 the duo were in Baffin Island in ­45 degree weather
along with a film crew.

Ord and her team came back with 200 hours of footage showing the profound changes global
warming has wrought upon the local environment and wildlife. But while some of this footage made its way onto various websites, most of it languished. The documentary medium was clearly not working.

A meeting between a frustrated Ord and filmmaker Enza Sands spawned the idea of a fictionalized film about an Inuit man and his quest to deliver a message to the “Elders” of the industrialized world. Chloe & Theo, set to hit theatres today, is the fruition of that idea.

Starring Ikummaq, who plays a fictionalized version of himself as the Inuit man who travels to New York with his message about an “angry sun,” Dakota Fanning (of 50 Shades of Grey) as a feisty homeless girl who befriends him, and Mira Sorvino, who plays what seems to be a version of Ord, the movie (according to the press release) hopes to be “an entertaining feature that would move people to action.”

The film, writer and director Sands says, has echoes of The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, Ikummaq (“Theo” for the purposes of the film) finds himself in a strange land with strange customs. He meets three characters, in this case three homeless people, who attempt to help him with a task that turns out to be more difficult than he anticipated. Sands also sees a parallel between
Theo’s homeless friends and the
Inuit — living simply, wasting nothing, taking what the land provides.

still from Chloe and TheoFirst-time actor Theo Ikummaq is the film's saving grace.

So far so good. But sometimes ideas that sound good don’t pan out quite as well.

Sadly, that’s the case with Chloe & Theo. It starts out strong, with absolutely mesmerizing shots of the Arctic, which Fanning in a voiceover describes as “a land so beautiful and white and silent that if you scraped a harpoon on the ice you could hear it for miles and miles.” The initial vignettes of Theo hunting alone in the vast, melting icescape, traveling to New York, and walking the packed streets of the megacity where he finds it “difficult to feel anything,” are compelling, too. And the film does have its moments of quirky humor.

But, for this viewer at least, it all began to unravel when Chloe comes on the scene.. Fanning does a decent job of portraying a young, Bruce Lee-obsessed runaway. It’s the script that does her in. I mean, who the heck in New York — a city that sports all kinds of high and low couture — can look across the street and pick out a “freakin’ Eskimo” among the crowd by looks alone? And no, Theo wasn’t sporting traditional Inuit gear.

From there, the film slips into an all too predictable pattern of a New York Story. There are the thugs Theo needs saving from; the clever, homeless chess player who figures out where Theo should go with his message; the rich woman with a heart of gold who gets Theo an appointment with the high-flying corporate moneybags; and so on. Meanwhile, the story of the Inuit’s plight, which was the impetus of the film in the first place, gets dealt with rather summarily. The plotline, even the twist at the end, is way too pat. Goes to show that good intentions don’t necessarily a great film make.

Given the timely release of the film, nearly coinciding with President Barack Obama’s visit to Alaska to address climate change (and also with his administration’s disappointing approval of drilling in the Arctic), the film’s simplistic treatment of the issue is a bit of a bummer.  

That said, Chloe & Theo does have a saving grace that kept me going till the end — Ikummaq. There’s something riveting about the calm, unhurried demeanor of this first-time actor. Yes, he does deliver a couple of preachy lines that might make you roll your eyes, and sometimes the sound mixing makes it impossible to catch his softly spoken words over the background music. But through it all Ikummaq has a je ne sais quoi that draws you in and keeps you there. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that he’s not an actor at all. Perhaps it’s the fact that, for him, much of the backstory of Chloe & Theo is all too painfully real.

Chloe & Theo will be available on VOD and in-theaters starting Friday, September 4.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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