'Northern Borders': Film Review
A twelve-year-old boy goes to live with his warring grandparents in this Vermont-set drama
An example of regional filmmaking at its most authentic, Jay Craven's drama based on a novel by Howard Frank Mosher represents the director's fifth adaptation of the author's work. Set in Kingdom County, Vermont, and made with the collaboration of dozens of students from the region's Marlboro College—they earned course credits for their efforts—Northern Borders is a leisurely paced coming-of-age tale made notable by the starring turns of screen veterans Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold. Although the film could find appreciative audiences in New England, theatrical prospects look otherwise iffy, although the thesps' name recognition factor should help it garner exposure in ancillary markets.
The central character is twelve-year-old Austen Kittredge III (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who in 1956 is sent by his single, unemployed father to live with his grandparents on their Vermont farm. It's not an easy transition. The couple, whose marriage is described as the "Forty Years War," barely speaks to each other, preferring, in one of the film's more tired running gags, to communicate through their new boarder.
They're an eccentric pair, with the senior Austen (Dern) being the sort of crotchety old coot who proudly declares "I never exchanged presents with anyone in my life" and Abiah (Bujold) strangely obsessed with all things Egyptian, constantly calling her grandson "Tut" because of his supposed resemblance to the young pharaoh.
Despite the clear contempt for his adult children that he displays during an ill-advised family reunion dinner, the senior Austen eventually warms to his grandson, at one point telling him about a lost love decades earlier that helps explain his prickliness. Further family secrets are eventually revealed in schematic fashion, including, most improbably, the reappearance of daughter Liz (Jessica Hecht, delivering an engagingly exuberant performance), an accused bank robber on the lam who may have buried her ill-gotten gains on the family farm.
The low-key storyline meanders along in episodic fashion, with one of the more notable if less than compelling plot elements being the elderly couple's court battle over his decision to allow their property to be wired for electricity, which she claims will damage her apple trees.
It all adds up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts, but it's made palatable by the well-evoked rural atmosphere and the typically expert performances by the two leads. Dern, settling into the old codger phase (Nebraska) of his distinguished career with an easy grace, wisely doesn't overplay his character's orneriness, while Bujold's ethereal charm serves her well as the enigmatic Abiah. Davey-Fitzpatrick, although saddled with an unfortunate bowl haircut, is appealingly natural as the young protagonist, and there are brief but effective turns by such veteran character actors as Jay O. Sanders, John Rothman, John Shea and Mark Margolis, among others.
Production: Kingdom Country Productions
Cast: Bruce Dern, Genevieve Bujold, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jessica Hecht, Jacqueline Hennessey, Alicia Lyn Hunt, Kaley Ronayne
Director/screenwriter/editor: Jay Craven
Producers: Jay Craven, Chip Hourihan
Executive producer: Ellen McCulloch-Lovell
Director of photography: Brad Heck
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume designer: Jessie Shul
Composers: Judy Hyman, Jeff Claus
No rating, 108 min.