Saturday 27 February 2021

Movie Review: Northern Borders (2013)

A coming-of-age drama, Northern Borders features two veteran actors in grumpy roles, but otherwise struggles to justify itself.

It's the 1950s, and young Austen Kittredge II (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) arrives to stay at the rural Vermont home of his grandparents Austen Sr. and Abiah (Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold). The boy discovers a household devoid of love and grandparents who barely talk to each other. Austen Sr. enjoys hunting, reading and puttering around his workshop. Abiah looks after the house and her garden, and is attached to Egyptian mementos.

Austen Sr. reveals to his grandson the story of his first and long-lost love. The young Austen starts a friendship with schoolmate Theresa Dubois (Jacqueline Birgitte Hennessy) and meets his three aunts, including the black sheep Liz (Jessica Hecht), who may or may not have once robbed a bank. When electricity arrives in the area, Austen Sr. is eager to connect his workshop to the grid, but Abiah is worried about the impact to her orchard.

An adaptation of the Howard Frank Mosher book, Northern Borders is a small independent production, seemingly pulled together with funding from many private donors and with the participation of local students. Writer and director Jay Craven does make good use of rustic rural locations and secures big screen legends Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold for the two central roles. They add plenty of talent and serious presence, but cannot rescue an aimless script.

The film is made up of a collection of loose threads that may work well as book chapters, but struggle to define a narrative direction on the screen. The reasons why young Austen is sent to live with his grandparents remain a mystery. His friendship with Theresa is barely scratched. The enigmatic Liz exists in a void separate from all around her. Abiah's attachment to Egyptian artefacts surfaces at regular intervals but never contributes. Austen Sr.'s first and only love is an interesting backstory, but hardly justifies the lifelong silent mistreatment of Abiah, the mother of his three daughters (the sex must have been invigorating).

With two surly characters occupying the grandparent roles, the film settles down to a slow-paced study of long-term passive aggressiveness, young Austen pressed into service as a conversational go-between for two adults who should know better. With the same piece of music looping incessantly on the soundtrack and the film engaging in a spot of dumbfounding self-censorship, Northern Borders strays out of bounds.

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