Northern Light: Film Review

Doc's observational style suits its subject well.

Nick Bentgen's debut doc follows snowmobile race teams in Michigan.

Citizens of Michigan's Upper Peninsula put a home-brewed, frozen-over spin on NASCAR action in Northern Light, Nick Bentgen's look at two aspiring snowmobile racers and the families that support them. A spare observational style suits the icy setting and unassuming protagonists; though the subject lacks the oomph to demand an art house run, the film will be appreciated at fests and draw attention to first-time director Bentgen, who also served at DP on this year's Tribeca Fest standout Hide Your Smiling Faces.

Long-range "enduro" snowmobile races have been held in the Midwest for decades; the I-500 in Sault Ste. Marie dates back to 1969. Of the dozens of racers who compete each year, Bentgen follows two: Walt Komarnizki, a long-haul trucker and family man; and Isaac Wolfgang, who works in a tool & die shop and spends his spare time bodybuilding with wife Emily, a former cheerleader.

Though it briefly observes the 2010 iteration of the race, the film spends most of its first hour simply hanging out with these men and their families. We go on runs with Walt, sitting wordlessly in truck stops as he tries to stay awake; go to the gym with Isaac and Emily; overhear conversations about tight household budgets and grinding jobs. The talk is almost never directed at the camera, and Bentgen offers scant onscreen titles to put these scenes in context. But where some other recent observation-only docs (a format seemingly on the rise among festival entries) have suffered from sluggish pacing or needless obscurity, Light benefits from Yoonha Park's editing, which keeps things moving without suffering from ADHD.

Bentgen doesn't polish his subjects up for urban audiences. He leaves in the casual use of the words "queer" and "retard"; the sight of an overweight woman mashing butter into potatoes silently comments on the shot immediately preceding it, in which she discusses disability benefits.

But the film clearly admires these hard-working people, and roots for them when it eventually gets to the 2011 race -- a surprisingly demanding event whose 500 laps inflict injury and fatigue on drivers. Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi's orchestral score is an unexpected but apt accompaniment, pitched in the sweet spot between Coplandesque common-man idealization and the overdramatizing heroics found in some sports films.

Production Company: Tetherball, LLC

Director-Director of photography: Nick Bentgen

Producer: Lisa Kjerulff

Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi

Editor: Yoonha Park

No rating, 105 minutes