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Based on events from the lives of writer-director Lori Stoll and her adopted daughter and executive producer Malaya Qaunirq Chapman, Heaven’s Floor is an affecting debut feature for still photographer Stoll, who’s clearly learned a lot on film sets judging by the professionalism on display here. Clea DuVall stars as a professional photographer from Los Angeles who adopts Malaya (Katie May Dunford), an 11-year-old Inuit girl she meets during a trip to the Arctic, only to find the transition is challenging for the whole family. The female-focused, triumph-over-adversity storyline inevitably recalls thematically similar Lifetime Channel trauma dramas, but Heaven’s Floor is admirably nuanced and unsentimental about the challenges of cross-cultural adoption. Plus, the performances are honest and the tinkly indie soundtrack nicely evocative without being sappy, while the landscape photography of the wide-open arctic spaces is nothing less than stunning.
Judging by the opening beach-set scene showing her shooting stills for a soft drink, Julia Chapman (DuVall) is a successful photographer working in advertising. But something is a little off given the way she declines the chance to be in a group photo with her crew and hesitates before driving home to hubby Ed (Toby Huss from Halt and Catch Fire) and her young son Liam (Chase Brosamle). At a dinner party that night, Julia jumps at an offer from sinisterly smooth adventurer Jack Martin (Timothy V. Murphy) to come with him to shoot pictures for National Geographic in the Arctic on Baffin Island. Ed isn’t happy about it, but Julia promises she’ll only be away a couple of weeks.
Of course, she’s proven wrong and the trip takes much longer than that, especially since it turns out that she’s very ill-prepared in terms of equipment for the sub-sub-zero temperatures. Also, it seems that there’s no National Geographic connection, and Jack is a bit of a sleazebag con-artist. Julia ends up intentionally separating herself from the group and is saved from hypothermia by a passing power-sled driven by an Inuit elder and his granddaughter Malaya. With all flights south delayed by a storm, Julia spends time in the tiny community and grows close to Malaya particularly. Little by little, Julia learns about how Malaya, who is now being raised by her elderly granny (Sheepa Ishulutaq), had a mother who was a “qallunaq” (or white person) like her but who died from alcohol abuse, and how she was sexually abused by one of the men in the village.
Julia’s maternal instincts are stirred deeply by the stoic, bespectacled little girl who says everything in the same affectless monotone, not because Dunford’s not a good actor but because that’s the undemonstrative, deadpan way everyone talks in these parts. A little while later, when Malaya’s grandmother dies, Julia determines to bring Malaya to Los Angeles to live with her without first getting adoption proceedings rolling or even securing the agreement of Ed and Liam. Needless to say, Malaya struggles to adjust to life in L.A., which is nothing like what she expected from watching Beverly Hills, 90210.
Stoll’s screenplay doesn’t always spell every motivation out, which is refreshing. It’s left to the viewer to draw her own conclusions as to why, say, Ed is so set against the adoption or indeed why Julia feels such a strong sense of empathy with Malaya that she’s willing to upend both their lives. It helps that DuVall, an underused talent, has such strong and expressive features and she has a natural rapport with Dunford, who makes her acting debut here. Other pleasing grace notes include the strong sense of place created by Leslie Brown’s production design and the glorious cinematography from George Billinger (in the Arctic sequences) and Danny Moder (in the Southern Californian locations).
Production companies: Road to Nowhere Films
Cast: Clea DuVall, Timothy V. Murphy, Toby Huss, Katie May Dunford, Chase Brosamle, Stephanie von Pfetten, Michael Eisner, Sheepa Ishulutaq, Brant Rotnem, Nicole Sullivan, Solomon Awa, Dan Wade, Leesie Akulukjuk, Richard Gershman
Director-screenwriter: Lori Stoll
Producers: Philip Rose, Lori Stoll, Justin Ford, Sally Hanson
Executive producers: Malaya Qaunirq Chapman
Directors of photography: George Billinger, Danny Moder
Production designer: Leslie Brown
Costume designers: Leah Sawick, Elizabeth Warn
Editors: Timothy Snell, Russell Denove
Music supervisor: Koo Abuali
Casting: Jason Wood, Amey Rene Morris
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