Aurora Borealis: Coming of Age Tale Dominated by Donald Sutherland as Ailing Grandfather

Aurora Borealis, the coming-of-age story of an initially unmotivated youngster who steps up to the plate to care for his ailing grandfather (splendidly played by Donald Sutherland), contains powerful moments and engaging characters that enrich its rather simple tale.

James Burke and Brent Boyd have few credits as director and writer, but they handle the material like pros, avoiding missteps that would turn their yarn into a cloying and predictable uplift movie. Like October Sky (1999), another detailed portrait of small-town life, Aurora Borealis is sincere without being sappy, delivering heartfelt moments with wit and authenticity.

Joshua Jackson, a former teen heartthrob on the WBs Dawsons Creek, here plays Duncan as an older version of his TV character Pacey. Paceys inability to pass math or to please his father (no matter how hard he tried) made for addictive drama, but Duncan must deal with the more mundane problems that adulthood brings, like paying the bills. While Paceys incompetence was endearing, Duncans is simply sad; he cant even land a job operating construction equipment. Unhappy with his role as a loser, Duncan is also resigned to itafter all, he can always borrow a few bucks from his brother. In exchange, Duncan loans his brother his apartment for his extra-marital affair.

When hes not looking for a job, Duncan plays pool or instigates drunken barroom brawls with his old time buddies. Like most movies about male camaraderie, “Aurora Borealis” has a colorful supporting cast. Take, for example, the slovenly yet charming Vikings fan (set in Minnesota, the movie substitutes hockey for football), complete with his beer-belly and live-in sports jersey, or the Native American aficionado (played by a pasty white boy) who quotes lines from movies like they are his own.

Duncan is not as loyal to his grandparents, whom he neglects to visit. His grandfather Ronald suffers from Parkinsons and Alzheimers, a condition that makes Duncan sad when he would rather feel sorry for himself. However, a job prospect as a maintenance man lures Duncan to his grandparents nursing home, and soon he is spending more time with them.

In stead of the more predictable route, of bonding moments leading to Duncans newfound sense of purpose, the filmmakers plunge into each scene with a zeal that suggests concern with living in the moment, making each situation pleasurable to watch. Burke shows how humorous situations can lead to more serious issues, as the violent outburst that ensues when Ronalds wife takes away his TV.

Contributing to the films spontaneity is Donald Sutherlands performance as Ronald. A ribald live-wire, who at one point smashes a set of teacups with a hammer when his wife is too nagging, Sutherland defies the stereotypes of the decrepit old men or clich sages. Sutherlands strong spirit makes the vulnerability he displays, an onset of the Alzheimers, more moving, especially in the scene that gives the film its title, when a relative calls attention to his fading clarity.

Juliette Lewis as Kate, Duncans love interest, is also good. The husky-voiced Lewis is a girl whos not afraid to burp loudly or adjust her bra in public. She initiates sex in a blunt way (damn, my nipples are hard) and exchanges guy talk with Duncans friends.

Yet there is undeniable chemistry, and even tenderness, in her scenes with Jackson, as Boyd realizes that intimacy is built not through broad declarations of love but subtle details, like the way Duncan is convinced that Kate needs him to watch the road for her when she is driving.

Predictably, Aurora Borealis displays elements of its genre, such as the dark family secret, and the heros former talent, which he wasted after losing faith in himself. However, the film introduces these elements as side notes, and handles them in ways that are not so typical.

Humble, Boyd and Burke rarely step outside the tiny community they have created to make statements about humanity. They should be commended for showing commitment to their story without falling into self-conscious techniques; unlike other indie directors, they seem less concerned with presenting themselves or their film as quirky or cutting edge.

Written by Kate Findley