September 7th, 2006
ďAurora BorealisĒ is a quiet, nicely observed human drama that canít quite figure out how to drum up sufficient drama. Great performances all around, including a blood-chilling depiction of aging from Donald Sutherland, and director James Burke knows how to set a Minnesota mood. Just donít expect dramatic fireworks, and this little film will satisfy.
Duncan (Joshua Jackson) is a young man struggling to maintain employment as he coasts through life in his wintry Minneapolis neighborhood. Surrounded by his long time friends and easy routine, Duncanís life is challenged when Kate (Juliette Lewis) catches his eye. As the two begin a relationship, Duncan takes a job close to his dying grandfather (Donald Sutherland), furthering the claustrophobia in his life. When Kate plans to move away to greener pastures, Duncan is left to ponder his insular world, and he doesnít like what he finds.
Tales of young guys fighting to shed their adolescence are a dime a dozen lately. ďAurora BorealisĒ stands out from the pack in the way it takes the idea of growing seriously; that itís an agonizing and complicated process with a very simple end result.
Writer Brent Boyd does a skillful job creating these Midwestern characters, and placing them cautiously on the chessboard of drama. This is not a film propelled by wild notions of operatic plot. In fact, the biggest detriment to ďBorealisĒ is that it doesnít reach the needed levels of conflict to see itself to a compelling end, struggling with feeble reasons to get these personalities to their finishing positions.
Even if the story isnít running with a full tank, the feel of Duncanís world is carefully written. ďBorealisĒ constantly dodges formula by taking little asides with the characters that are unpredicted, and exercising the Minneapolis setting to investigate the literal and symbolic thawing of a wounded soul. Iím a little miffed that the production felt the need to sub Canadian locations in for Minnesota, but Boyd nails the finer points of slow-burn, face-freezing Twin Cities winter life, especially his hilarious observations on the statewide football obsession.
Director James Burke lends ďBorealisĒ a comfort that helps sell Duncanís complacency. This isnít a domineering directing job, wisely keeping the actors out in front to find a rhythm with the audience for maximum emotional payoff. Again, Burke canít fight the grabby final act, but he doesnít drown the picture with sentiment or cutesy stabs at comedy. Following Boydís screenplay, thereís an effort here to make the film feel authentic while paying strict attention to tightly scripted dramatic threading.
For Joshua Jackson, this is a terrific shot at an adult role, and the first acting piece from him that makes me excited for his future performances. Jackson couldíve easily gone for an angle on Duncan that bleeds tragic emotional stunting, but he provides Duncan a complex mind behind his tortured moment of decision making. Meeting him halfway is Juliette Lewis, who has never been more appealing, sexy, and human than in this picture. She makes the normally one dimensional girlfriend role spark with life, and you believe her frustrations to find a reason why Duncan should stay in his poisonous life.
Most striking is Donald Sutherlandís performance as Ronald, Duncanís aching grandfather. Sutherland has never feared method acting, but I havenít witnessed him this immersed in a character in over a decade. This is frightening work, skillfully realizing the tragedy of aging that might have some audience members fingering cyanide pills in response to watching Sutherland commit entirely to the shaking, bitterness, and despondency of growing old.
ďAurora BorealisĒ is an unassuming indie film with a lot of heart and acting power. Sure, you might know where itís going from the first frames, but the goal here is to get the audience involved in Duncanís journey to self-actualization. This an excellent little film.
My rating: B+