North By Current

Rendezvous with Madness 2021: North By Current Review

The push for reform within the criminal justice system is often discussed from an inner-city perspective in the media. What is not mentioned is that misuse of power in policing and the courts has a great impact on those in rural communities as well. Returning to his hometown of Grayling, Michigan, director Angelo Madsen Minax intended to make a film that explored how his family felt the sting of injustice when his young niece died, and his sister and her partner became the prime suspects in the eyes of the law.

What made the situation even more unnerving was that the truth did not seem to matter to the police. They assumed a narrative and persuaded others to bend to their narrow view. What really happened to Minax’s niece is a mystery that unfolds slowly, though it’s apparent her death is far from the only wound in the family. Frequently taking detours into those longstanding family traumas, North By Current reveals itself to be a sprawling meditation on grief, addiction, motherhood, masculinity, and identity. The expansive nature of the subject matter may seem unruly at first, even Minax’s own mother admits that his films are usually “kind of out there”, but the director keeps everything contained to the most important element—family.

Setting the tone of the film early on, by awkwardly attempting to re-stage a family outing at a local diner they used to frequent, it becomes clear that Minax’s Mormon parents and sister are still trying to navigate each other and the grief they still wrestle with. The pain of loss took on various forms for each family member.

For his sister, it meant a dangerous bout of depression and spending “four years pregnant” as she rapidly brought three more children into the world as a coping mechanism. The latter of which is punctuated by a powerful moment when another niece recounts the abusive relationship between Minax’s sister and her husband, an alcoholic dealing with his own childhood demons, with a childlike innocence that is heartbreaking to observe.

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The innocence of children reaches almost ethereal levels as Minax incorporates voiceover narration from The Child (Sigrid Harmon), that poses philosophical questions for both the director and audience. This technique of conversing with a transcendent being is quite effective when intertwined with the other tools in Minax’s bold and confident arsenal. Skillfully blending home movies, poetic imagery, non-linear editing, and blisteringly frank interviews with his family, North By Current is an endlessly fascinating film.

For all its technical splendour, it is the tough discussion with family members that leave the biggest mark. One observes the pain that Minax himself feels when his parents catch him off guard by comparing the grief of losing a grandchild to the loss of their daughter. Minax is a trans male and his parents see his transitioning as its own form of death. Their equating the two losses on the same level does not, understandably, sit well with Minax. Nor does the time when his mother once allegedly viewed his gender transformation as God punishing her for having an abortion years ago. The director uses these tough conversations to springboard into a deeper pool of questions related to expectations and identify.

North By Current makes it clear that in rural communities the traditional notions of gender, and the supposed stoicism of manhood, are based on a legacy of faulty archetypes. Such unrealistic expectations can lead to a vicious cycle of addiction and abuse that can span generations. A perfect example of this can be found in his brother-in-law—a man who drinks to numb the pain and finds himself on the same abusive path as those who came before him.

In charting how past trauma can manifest in destructive cycles, Minax weaves together a thought-provoking tale unlike anything you will see this year. It is a testament to Minax’s filmmaking that such a sprawling film manages to maintain its focus despite its numerous turns and revelations. Painting a lyrical portrait of grief and pain that often goes unnamed, North By Current is a sensational film that is not easily forgotten.

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North By Current plays the virtual edition of Rendezvous with Madness from Oct 29 – Nov 7. It will also air on POV on PBS starting this coming Monday.

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