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Northern Borders
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by Jay Seaver

"Another well-spent visit to the Northern Kingdom."
4 stars

Having lived in New England my entire life, I'm mildly curious as to whether Jay Craven's "Northeast Kingdom" films were ever particularly visible outside the region. They're local and low-budget, but fairly well-made, and usually have one or two people the audience will recognize in the cast. In this case, that's Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold, and the movie is plenty good enough that they're not out of place.

They play Austen and Abiah Kittredge, farmers in Vermont's Kingdom County who, as of 1956, have been married for decades, although it has been some years since they were happily so. That's when their grandson Austen III (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is sent to stay with them for a while, and he doesn't know what he's getting into: His grandfather is considered the meanest bastard in the county and has little use for schoolteachers like Austin Jr. while his grandmother is obsessed with ancient Egypt to a level that goes beyond eccentricity. But as his stay extends much longer than he originally expected, he makes a friend in Theresa Dubois (Jacqueline Hennessey) and picks up stories about what shaped his grandparents and how his Aunt Liz (Jessica Hecht) is said to have hidden the proceeds of a bank robbery on the farm.

As coming-of-age stories go, Northern Borders is fairly low-key; Austen is more mature by the end of the movie, but it's less the result of things happening to him than what he observes. It makes him a somewhat soft center for the movie - a couple of important decisions he makes come off-screen or without a whole lot of visible consideration - but it does give the story an interesting feel, as it winds up being half about what the elder Kittredges do themselves and half about how Austen reacts to them. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick handles that role fairly well; there's a quiet curiosity about this boy most of the time, but a fierce intensity that pops up on occasion. He's good enough to have the last word and make it mean something.

The character also has to act as the intermediary between his grandparents in many scenes ("if I weren't here," he asks, "would you speak to each other at all?"), which means that, in a way, Geneviève Bujold and Bruce Dern are not quite acting against each other. That actually kind of works; Bujold has a slightly theatrical, affected air as Abiah, and while it is in large part a trait of her character, it could still clash if she were playing off Dern directly - as it is, there's still something a bit too deliberate about her delivery at times. Dern, meanwhile, gets his character's prickliness across with understatement, and it's a nice performance, a little more reserved than is typical but more in some ways more interesting than what he was doing in Nebraska; his holding back seems more deliberate and less like synapses just not firing.

They and the rest of the cast play their characters out in a story that seems to have been highly compressed from Howard Frank Mosher's original novel (the book takes place over 16 years, rather than a spring and summer), and it sometimes shows; there are characters who appear and disappear very quickly for what seem like partial stories, although the important bits do add up. The score by Jeff Claus & Judy Hyman is sparse, but that helps reinforce the rural period atmosphere. The whole film in general is very polished for something independently made in northern Vermont, especially considering that half the crew and some members of the cast were students or recent graduates of local college film and theater programs.

But then, Craven has been doing this a while - it's his fifth adaptation of a Mosher story since 1989, all of them made in the area both Craven and Mosher call home. It's a modest but enjoyable new entry to this long-standing collaboration, and in a world where so much entertainment is made to appeal to an audience too broad to really be defined, there's something very satisfying about seeing talented people do something this local.

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originally posted: 04/25/14 05:31:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/31/19 Theophila Glad I found this and watched it 4 stars
6/01/15 Scarlett enjoyed the humor, well chosen actors and the story 4 stars
12/10/14 evan conley jay craven came to my school and screened this for us. 5 stars
5/06/14 Hqrxsdwe Marijuana use may be keeping the radiation nuclear war on North America: Mikesh, Robert C. 4 stars
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