"Aurora Borealis" has the 'indie' stamp all over it. The film isn't overtly artsy, nor is the narrative esoteric or particularly challenging. Instead, plot takes a backseat to tight-knit characterizations and the meaningful relationships that form between them. Director James Burke and screenwriter Brent Boyd strike an effectively low-key approach, targeting authenticity in day-to-day living and human connections that thankfully avoids all hints of hackneyed story developments and rote conflicts. That doesn't necessarily mean the movie breaks new cinematic ground, because it doesn't.
25-year-old Minnesota native Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson) never met a job he could keep or an opportunity he didn't throw away. With a mother who is mostly out of the picture and a father who died of a heart attack ten years earlier, Duncan could safely be called a slacker without direction or proper guidance. After reluctantly going to visit his rapidly deteriorating, Alzheimer's-inflicted grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland) and supportive, levelheaded grandmother Ruth (Louise Fletcher), Duncan decides that he wants to spend as much time with them while he still can and promptly gets a job as a handyman in their apartment building. It is through his grandpa that Duncan meets and falls in love with free-spirited health care nurse Kate (Juliette Lewis). As they embark on a romance, Kate can't help but recognize the potential Duncan has in his life that, for reasons to be discovered, he has chosen to ignore.
A post-teenage coming-of-age drama, "Aurora Borealis" touches upon the same general themes and details already covered in 2004's "Garden State
." That great motion picture, written, directed and starring Zach Braff, told of a failing 26-year-old actor stuck in a pre-midlife crisis who returns to his hometown to attend his mother's funeral. While there, he reconnects with old buddies and ultimately finds inspiration and newfound purpose in his burgeoning relationship with a lovably quirky young woman (Natalie Portman). "Garden State
" is the superior of the twomore creative, visually dynamic and memorablebut "Aurora Borealis" nevertheless has a relaxed and understated tone that blindsides the viewer at key moments with its dramatic potency.
Not every member of the ensemble cast is fully writtenDuncan's childhood friends are an unsupportive, mostly interchangeable group, and a subplot involving older brother Jacob's (Steven Pasquale) extramarital affair is superfluousbut it is in the movie's two key relationships where magic sparks. The first, between Duncan and his ailing granddad, pierces the heart with its unsentimental pathos, especially in the way Duncan is powerless to stop his loved one from sinking into dementia and worse. Director James Burke's depiction of the degeneration Ronald goes through, mentally and physically, through the course of the film is emotionally devastating, as is Duncan's love for him. When circumstances while shopping at the Mall of America forces Duncan to help Ronald into the bathroom, and subsequently hold him steady while he urinates, the film's stark realism takes on an almost documentary feel.
The second relationship that succeeds in earning the viewer's invested interest is between Duncan and Kate. The love story built between them, if introduced a little too conveniently at the forefront, grows naturally and believably. Joshua Jackson (2005's "Cursed
") and Juliette Lewis (2004's "Starsky & Hutch
") are so sweet and charismatic together that it's easy to root for them to stay together. Besides being charismatic within the romance, Jackson carries the picture as Duncan, in a turn that is subjectively similar to his most well-known characterPacey from "Dawson's Creek"but is quite different in personality and demeanor. As Kate, Lewis is a delight, emanating internal beauty, light and soulfulness; she hasn't had a role with this many layers since at least 2002's "Hysterical Blindness."
In easily one of the year's best performances, Donald Sutherland (2006's "An American Haunting
") delivers a heartbreaking turn as Duncan's grandfather Ronald, an elderly man who can't bear to witness his own body's withering decay. If the Academy voters knows what's good for them, they will take a serious look at Sutherland's superlative work here. It's a role, and a piece of acting, with the power to haunt one's memories. Finally, Louise Fletcher (1999's "Cruel Intentions
") gets the least amount to work with of the four leads, but is very good all the same as grandmother Ruth, who is dedicated to standing by her husband until the inevitable end.
"Aurora Borealis," which gets its name from the Northern Lights that Ronald claims to be able to see at night from his apartment balcony, is small in scale and light on innovation. For what is primarily a leisurely paced, quietly affecting character study, however, that is okay. Vividly shot in bitterly cold, snowy landscapes and taking advantage of prime locations in and around Minneapolis, "Aurora Borealis" evokes a specific sense of place that further aids in humanizing these affectionately drawn characters and their first steps toward making the life changes necessary to be happy.