Like an object in the rearview mirror that might be closer than it appears or the blurry image you don’t recognize as an obstacle until your snowmobile is only a half a mile away, initially Northern Light tricks you into thinking it’s one film before a few miles and thirty minutes go by onscreen and you realize that it’s something different altogether.
Centered around three hardworking families in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who live and breathe snowmobile racing and put their heart and soul into preparing for each annual competitive season, Northern Light may be described as a sports documentary but it has less to do with sleds flying around in circles on a frozen lake than it does with bringing us into the everyday lives of the people who call the community home.
A true "window on the world" observational documentary in every sense of the word, the American studies infused slice-of-life has an old-fashioned Albert and David Maysles or Barbara Kopple inspired home movie feel to Light that both helps and hinders what is essentially a work of cultural anthropology masquerading as a competitive nonfiction film.
Needless to say, for those uninitiated in the experimental filmmaking style, the absence of formal introductions to our subjects (including everything from names to character relation), lack of traditional interviews, or even a race-centered structure does take some getting used to.
And even for those of us who’ve seen our fair share of observational works (from the post-Italian neorealist movement that picked up momentum in the ‘50s and ‘60s), even though we find ourselves easily lost in cameraman/director Nick Bentgen’s lush, naturalist cinematography, we have a hard time getting into the rhythm of the opaque Light because of its confusing structure.
Thus we're left using context clues and guesswork to try and figure out just who the film is intending to focus on and what subtextual points (if any) that Bentgen and producer plus credited co-director Lisa Kjerulff are trying to make with the juxtaposition of Yoonha Park’s intriguing edits.
With the exception of, say, D.A. Pennebaker’s controversial Don’t Look Back, traditionally this nonfiction subgenre attempts to paint as objective of a picture as possible before incorporating only the bare minimum of artistic interpretation in the post-production process.
And in addition to Park's intriguing post-discussion worthy edits, the partially Kickstarter funded production (newly released on DVD) boasts a tremendous orchestral score from Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi.
Of course, observational filmmaking is a quite stylistically different from some of the subjectively analytic investigative documentaries that have become particularly popular in the last three decades with journalist helmers such as Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Morgan Spurlock and others using the medium to inform as well as inspire action and change.
And although I appreciate the director’s observational anthropological approach to the Upper Peninsula, there are some vastly more fascinating narratives left unexplored by Light’s method than the snowmobile related through-line allows.
For example, the film touches on but never truly delves into issues of economic hardship, child welfare, governmental assistance, gender dynamics, and more to create a surface level tapestry of what could’ve potentially been a much deeper film.
Refreshingly humanistic and unapologetic, the filmmakers challenge stereotypes by leaving in some of the saltier conversations of Light’s subjects that are occasionally sprinkled with homophobia and racism while relishing in the complexities of its characters by showing all sides of their personalities.
At its best when it celebrates the everyday heroism of the film’s quietest and most easily overlooked characters, Light’s generosity of spirit is on full display when we encounter a hardworking mother struggling to complete her GED, a caring couple who takes in their daughter’s friend to save her from an abusive situation despite their own limited resources, as well as youngsters who dare to dream.
Unfortunately with so much footage captured over the two year production, there are a lot of small vignettes that get lost in the shuffle of the film that meanders more than it creates a completely complementary mosaic.
From characters we wish we could’ve seen more of including a young boy who wants to become a dancer along with a number of contrasts between the genders and a complicated dynamic between a young couple that are in full support of one another’s (non-snowmobile) dreams, moving moments of life beyond the periphery sneak into frame every so often and leave much too quickly.
One of the purest examples of observational documentary filmmaking served up since its heyday, while it doesn’t glide nearly as easily as one of the snowmobiles seen far too fleetingly in a film that’s purported to be centered around racing season, Northern Light nonetheless burns bright as a moving anthropological portrait of small town American life.
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