Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.
Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff’s Northern Light is set in Michigan’s desolate upper peninsula, which could appear to be no more than a frozen wasteland for many people’s purposes. Economic dispossession may have relegated main subjects Walt Komarnizki (trucker) and Isaac Wolfgang (toolmaker) to this undesirable terrain, but as avid snowmobile racers, they’ve found a good use for the land. Their obsession provides the framework, though not necessarily subject, of this patient documentary.
Walt is a traditionally minded patriarch, who denounces Corpus Christi, Texas as “the land of the queers” when setting up an anecdote at family dinner. Isaac is a bit more of a B-side subject, lingering less in the mind. Both are hard workers struggling to make it in an economic landscape they’re not responsible for; charismatic on their own terms; and, for liberal-minded viewers, sometimes hard to take, which goes for everyone on-screen. (There’s a late-breaking scene which is basically just gossip about the shameful out-of-wedlock miscegenation.) Interludes touch on Walmart and meth, two staples of a potentially overhasty portrait of what’s unkindly deemed “flyover country,” and the whole project balances on the edge of potential caricature of the kind Alexander Payne is so often (wrongly) accused.
Bentgen distances himself from his subjects a bit: Acting as his own cinematographer, he takes a formalist master-shot approach to things, planting his camera down in the snow and waiting patiently for a snowmobile to whiz by, or slowly zooming in on Walt at the head of the dinner table. He has a good eye for setups even when shooting on the fly, and widescreen lends both open spaces and domestic interiors equal scope. Alexander Jurriaans and Daniel Bensi’s chromatic score is another act of distancing from the subject matter, articulating unease in an idiom that’s decidedly not indigenous to the setting.
Northern Light respects its subjects’ struggles and survival skills without either pointedly underlining or hiding their intolerances; it’s a convincing portrait precisely because its characters are so rounded. A big final race comes and goes, largely off-screen: Bentgen is much more interested in the people than what drives them. Northern Light is ultimately not a sports film but a look at life near the bottom of the American economic ladder that doesn’t rely on the novelty of its setting or the comparatively easy suspense of a sporting event. It’s one sharp impression after another of people whose attempt to simulate a normal suburban existence shows cracks at every level.
Availability: Northern Light is available on DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase through Amazon Instant Video.