Earnest, humane, and political, indie drama Northern Lights tells the story of how Norwegian-immigrant farmers organized in North Dakota circa 1916 as a means of fighting back against abuse by politically connected businessmen. Codirected by first-timers John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, the picture has a miniscule budget, simplistic black-and-white cinematography, and a general paucity of visual spectacle beyond panoramic shots of wintry North Dakota skylines. Yet as is true of many respectable indies, the limitations of Northern Lights are also virtues. This is a story about small people living on the fringes of civilization, so the rudimentary presentation suits the material. Moreover, Hanson and Nilsson focus on performance, letting the faces of their actors carry the muted emotions of the storyline—another suitable choice, given the stoicism of the population being portrayed. In every important way, the filmmakers strive to put viewers inside the day-to-day grind of a specific population.
Ray (Robert Behling) is a struggling young farmer eager to marry his sweetheart, Inga (Susan Lynch), but life has a nasty way of interrupting. Work, the death of Inga’s father, bad weather, and the rising conflict between farmers and businessmen all force delays of the couple’s nuptials. Meanwhile, life in general becomes more and more difficult with each passing month for the members of Ray’s community. Ray’s partner, John (Joe Spano), withholds an entire year’s crop of wheat after businessmen artificially depress prices, thereby creating privation on a point of professional pride. Not coincidentally, Ray gets drawn deeper and deeper into labor organization, especially after he watches a bank mercilessly foreclose on a friend’s farm. Northern Lights is partly a catalog of suffering, partly a hero’s journey in which Ray evolves from follower to leader, and partly a tribute to the tenacity of immigrants pulling a living out of rugged terrain. Northern Lights is also a memory piece of sorts, since the movie is framed by sequences of a 94-year-old man discovering Ray’s decades-old journal and transforming that journal into a book (which, ostensibly, provides the story of the movie).
If all of this makes Northern Lights sound ambitious, that’s not precisely accurate. Although the movie dramatizes a large span of time, its scope is intimate—and that’s the beauty and frustration of the picture. Viewed favorably, Northern Lights wedges an epic story into a manageable shape. Viewed critically, Northern Lights is like a sketch for a never-completed painting. For every single thing the film accomplishes, some other thing is merely implied. This is not to say the movie feels incomplete, because it does not—but rather to say that Northern Lights epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of DIY filmmaking. A bigger version of this story wouldn’t feel as personal, but a bigger version would provide a more holistic examination of the historical events depicted onscreen.
Northern Lights: FUNKY