A little girl is left to her own devices when she’s at her father’s house. While he is busy at night entertaining female visitors and drinking, she is exploring in the woods outside or in her room, reading her favorite comic books featuring brave, intrepid heroes battling monsters and criminals.
Eventually, in imitation of one of her favorite comics about a frontier explorer, she decides to take herself camping. Self-sufficient and independent, she fares well despite her tender age, forging a life of adventure for herself.
But by the time her father realizes his daughter is missing and goes after her, reality and fantasy begin to bleed together, leading to an unexpected confrontation and encounter she will never forget.
Director Chuck Kleven and writer Elliot Brady have crafted a captivating short that combines elements of social realism with children’s fantasy to capture the imaginative and emotional life of a little girl forced into independence sooner than she’s ready for.
Like many great children’s stories, it takes the emotions and abilities of its child characters seriously, and the writing here invests its main character’s story with a great amount of respect and close attention. The little girl’s world is remarkably quiet — she says very little on the film — and she herself is a marginal presence in her father’s life. Forced on her own often, she turns to comics and reading, and as a result, has a rich imaginative life.
The visuals of the film detail both aspects of the little girl’s life with a rough-hewn beauty and immediacy. The natural world that she finds herself most drawn to in both lush and ominous, while her father’s world is disordered and claustrophobic. The camera’s unusual angles and focus on detail seem to capture how the little girl sees the world: unable to grasp the larger context, but alert to prescient, poetic small details that communicate so much.
It’s not surprising with such a vivid interior life and an all-encompassing solitude that the little girl sees herself as an adventurer, explorer and hero, a mistress of her own fate with a sense of agency. Young performer Zoe Clarke plays the little girl with a genuine sense of self-possessiveness, and the performance is less one of delivering lines with emotion than embodying a girl adrift on her own, solitary and self-contained.
Her camping trip seems to amplify her imagination, and the images become suffused with an element of visual magic, with vivid sequences that speak to her understanding of herself as a heroine amid a world full of monsters. But as brave and wild as she is, the little girl is still a child — a truth she comes face to face with as her fantasy life takes on momentum and a life of its own.
With its dark, quiet sense of nature and an almost feral sensibility, “Frontier” in the end becomes almost like a fairy tale or a fable. Many fairy tales about children often feature characters who are alone for much of their story, and whose wits, bravery and innocence get them through challenges and confrontations.
We love these stories because they remind us of children’s resilience and ability to conquer faults and fears. Our little girl in “Frontier” is no different from her classic fairy tale counterparts in her smarts, courage and open heart, but she lives in a world where there is no fairy godmother or magical animal guide — only a human parent full of foibles, for better or for worse. They find their way back to one another, and while the little girl has taken a risk and expanded her sense of the world in the process, she still returns to a world that is all too real and ambiguous to behold.