Prior to the release of the laughably bad MTV teen drama, Varsity Blues, the increasingly trashy music network featured a promotional campaign of character vignettes wherein voiceovers of lofty dreams and ambitions accompanied images of the isolated teens standing in open fields or lemonade stands looking up at the sky or off into the distance. It gave a Friday Night Lights impression of prescience, capturing the unlikelihood of small town escape or fulfilled ambitions, utilization shot composition and sound to attribute a concept without actually saying it.
And while that film was unable to fulfill the promise demonstrated in this smarter than average marketing effort, directors Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff have with their kickstarter funded documentary, Northern Light. They've made visually sumptuous and stirring observation piece that generates a similar small town despondence surrounding an annual snowmobile race in a northern Michigan community feeling the effects of the economic depression.
No voiceovers or first person interviews guide the viewer; rather, the wide-open snow-covered expanses are juxtaposed with the quotidian experience of two snowmobiling hopefuls; one a middle-aged trucker and married family man and the other a young Christian newlywed. Both men demonstrate a similar focus and work ethic but are distinguished through vastly different lifestyles. Walt Komarnizki smokes, swears and rough houses with his kids, while the younger Isaac Wolfgang prays before every meal, spending any extra time going for runs and lifting weights at the gym.
Walt's wife is as worried about the future prospects of her elderly care work as he is of future trucking possibilities, showing the tail end of the dreams and aspirations that Isaac and his wife—a body sculpting competitor—still believe could happen.
Bentgen and Kjerulff observe these lives with an insider's eye. At times, there's a sense that the children—who similarly dream of making more of themselves than their current disposition will allow—are acting up for the camera but this is rare in comparison to the many moments where background observations capture very candid moments. These people are constantly fighting to make ends meet, never letting go of the glory that winning a symbolic event, like the I-500 snowmobile race, would bring.
But, in watching people literally and metaphorically run in circles, attending high school cheerleading contests where a grammatically incorrect sign asserts, "Your a Star", there's a sense of futility. Northern Light doesn't assert or force this perspective onto the text implicitly, instead framing everything carefully and impeccably, allowing the outcome of each competition to speak for itself.
At the end of it all, the false hope these competitions give to people socialized to believe they can do anything is at heartbreaking as it is culturally frustrating. (Kickstarter/IFP)