Tales of young guys fighting to shed their adolescence are a dime a dozen lately. "Aurora Borealis" stands out from the pack in the way it takes the idea of growing seriously; that it's 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 "Borealis" is that it doesn't 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 isn't running with a full tank, the feel of Duncan's world is carefully written. "Borealis" 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. I'm 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 "Borealis" a comfort that helps sell Duncan's complacency. This isn't a domineering directing job, wisely keeping the actors out in front to find a rhythm with the audience for maximum emotional payoff. Again, Burke can't fight the grabby final act, but he doesn't drown the picture with sentiment or cutesy stabs at comedy. Following Boyd's screenplay, there's 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 could've 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 Sutherland's performance as Ronald, Duncan's aching grandfather. Sutherland has never feared method acting, but I haven't 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.
"Aurora Borealis" is an unassuming indie film with a lot of heart and acting power. Sure, you might know where it's going from the first frames, but the goal here is to get the audience involved in Duncan's journey to self-actualization. This is an excellent little film.