In the interest of being as succinct as possible, Ezna Sands’ Chloe & Theo can be summarized thusly: an Arctic Inuit named Theo (Theo Ikummaq) travels to New York City and teams up homeless drifter Chloe (Dakota Johnson) to deliver a cautionary message about global warming to the United Nations. So naturally, the film’s poster makes no mention of Theo and features the disembodied head of actress Dakota Johnson floating over New York City and the tagline “Together They Will Change the World.” The design of this poster embodies the spirit of Chloe & Theo better than any trailer possibly could: incredibly tone-deaf and racist.
That’s not to say that Sands & co. had bad intentions. That Chloe & Theo is racist cannot be disputed. But I don’t see malevolence or malice here; I see head-scratching naivety. From the very first shot, the film fetishizes Inuit culture. “I want to tell you about a man I once knew. He lived in a land so beautiful, so white, and silent that if you scraped a harpoon on the ice you could hear it for miles and miles,” Chloe intones over sweeping Arctic vistas, setting the stage for one of the film’s central thematic dynamics: the Arctic as pure and clean, the “South” (a term used to refer to everyone OTHER than the Inuit) as dirty and corrupt; the Inuit as pristine and “more in touch with nature”—that old stand-by used by proponents of the Noble Savage archetype—the “South” as brainwashed by television and materialism.
An apocalyptic dream about the Sun kissing the earth motivates Theo’s elders to send him to meet with the “Southern Elders.” From there, Theo innocently faux-pas his way through American culture until he meets Chloe, a truculent brat whose frequent, anti-social outbursts the film mistakes as charming and down-to-earth instead of obnoxious and counter-productive. The fetishization continues as Chloe falls for his spell and becomes his disciple. “What do I see in this guy?” she pronounces. “I see innocence and purpose and meaning.” Is she talking about a human being or a China Doll?
Realizing the importance of Theo’s message, she makes the obvious decision of escorting him to the United Nations building along with a small army of rioting homeless people. When they’re incarcerated by UN guards rightly concerned about a mob of intruders trying to break into an enclave of world leaders, they’re bailed out of jail by a Monica (Mira Sorvino), a pretty white lady with business connections and a sob story about her failure to save AIDS babies in Africa. After succeeding to get a number of environmentally-friendly companies to provide a platform for Theo’s message, he is mugged, stabbed, and killed in the streets for his shoes, leaving Chloe to make a tearful Larry King Live appearance where she tells his story.
Can you understand how misguided Chloe & Theo is? In attempting to depict the Inuit with dignity, it reduces them to Nanook of the North stereotypes. It transforms a member of a proud ethnic and cultural tradition into a living talking point used by white people to condemn global warming. The film exists in a detached La La Land where trying to storm the UN building gets you a legal slap on the wrist; where Inuit have motorized snow bikes, access to Western-style education, and magical plane tickets which can apparently transport you to the US without a passport, but no knowledge of television or electronics; where prolonged homelessness doesn’t lead to malnutrition and health conditions but instead leaves pretty white women looking like models that merely smeared dirt on their faces seconds before the director yelled “action”; where one of the most preposterous white guilt narratives about the destructive cost of climate change elicits the response “Wow, that’s a deep message” from Larry King.