North of Normal is Mature and Moving
After being raised in the wilderness, a teenage girl moves to the city hoping for a normal life with her anything but normal mother.
North of Normal Review
The casual viewer may be swift to dismiss North of Normal as just another in a long line of coming-of-age stories and autobiographical accounts of bohemian upbringings, but this movie is much better than that. It is not only a film about maturity but defined by it, a movie not just about growing up, but the consequences of not doing so. The consequences are not just to oneself, but to one’s own children as well. How rare is it to find a movie about growing up that seems to have been made by actual grown-ups?
North of Normal is based on the actual childhood and adolescent experiences of Cea Sunrise Person (yes, that’s her real name), and while most people are unlikely to have had a similar upbringing, the lessons of her life story apply to everyone. We are actually introduced to her before she is even born, as pregnant teenager Michele (Sarah Gadon) is dragged by her political activist father Dick (Robert Carlyle) into the wilds of the Yukon. Her father believes that modern civilization and its social mores are too constricting, and insists on living off the land while also permitting free love and recreational drug use with friends and visitors. Most reasonable people would balk at raising a family in such a setting, but “Papa Dick” insists otherwise. The young Cea (River Price-Maenpaa) seems initially unfazed by her odd upbringing, wandering wide-eyed around the family campsite while a variety of bohemian guests arrive and depart, but as she grows into a teenager (Amanda Fix), it’s clear that she’s having trouble socializing and making sense of her own identity. She grows restless, dreaming of moving to Paris and becoming a model, but has no idea how to fulfill any of her goals. Worse yet, her mother is going through growing pains of her own as Michele seems to try to make up for her own stolen childhood, regarding Cea more like a friend than a daughter. She has inherited her father’s vagabond ways and can’t stay rooted in one place or one job for long, much less stay with one man, and the men she chooses are invariably trash. As the film proceeds, we gradually learn the complicated story of how things came to this and whether or not either mother or daughter can find the courage to break this destructive cycle, while also mending the bond between them.
While this is definitely a feminist film, it deals specifically with personal liberation, with the political dimension being adjacent to it and much more complicated than one would expect. Certainly, we see through the characters that counter-cultural and alternative lifestyles can not only be just as stifling as the norm but every bit as patriarchal, encouraging a most destructive mindset among their adherents that can, unfortunately, linger through subsequent generations. The notion of “free love” as promulgated by “Papa” and other children of beat poetry and the Playboy Philosophy is just another way for men to maintain control over the women in their lives, and to determine women’s paths in life long after they’ve exited the lives of their men. The film’s critique is ultimately not towards societies or groups but those individuals who are so self-absorbed that they fail to see how their actions impact the lives of others, even their own children after they’ve grown up. The movie does not condemn the decision to live outside of social norms, just its use as an excuse for the abdication of adult responsibilities
One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its resolute insistence on avoiding any sort of nostalgia for either of its period settings. Director Carly Stone and screenwriter Alexandra Weir deliberately try to erase any sort of warm feeling for either the Seventies or Eighties. and they have plenty of able assistance from cinematographer David Robert Jones in accomplishing this. The scenes of Cea’s childhood in the Canadian wilds seem deliberately chilly and overcast even in the summer months; this setting is the proverbial nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there and it’s certainly no place to raise a child, much less an entire family. Yet the urban environment of her adolescence is every bit as barren and uninviting. The sun seems brighter this time only because it is reflected off layers of concrete, and being around more people doesn’t matter when most of them are unfriendly or outright hostile. What’s a bright young girl to do except try to escape it all?
Casting the part of said bright young girl must have been quite difficult considering that it required two strong young actresses recognizable as the same person nearly a full decade apart and it must have been tempting to go the Boyhood route instead, pausing filming for seven years while the lead actress grew up. Fortunately, the casting department found the perfect actress for the part of Cea. The performances by young Amanda Fix and the even younger River Price-Maenpaa are so perfectly in sync, it’s hard to believe they are not indeed the same person years apart (full disclosure: River’s parents Matt and Elinor, both of whom have small parts in the film, are longtime family friends and my sister was River’s favorite babysitter). Equally strong is Sarah Gadon as Cea’s mother, who struggles with accepting the adult responsibilities she never learned about, and must now deal with the fact that her daughter has matured more quickly than she has herself. The film’s story structure, with the scenes of Cea’s adolescence presented linearly while the scenes of her young childhood are shown in a series of out-of-sequence flashbacks, may seem confusing at first but it soon becomes clear that this editing technique is necessary not just to understand Cea’s growth as into young adulthood but her own mother’s emotional regression as well.
The story ends on a note of cautious optimism, as the film’s Cea may have finally emancipated herself and will eventually attain self-actualization, but we’re also aware that she may just be substituting one potential trap for another. In any case, one is left hoping to see what happens next not just to her, but to her mother as well. For now, one will have to settle for reading the real-life Cea Sunrise Person’s memoirs to find out, but a cinematic follow-up would be most welcome. Movies like North of Normal rarely get sequels, but it’s certainly earned itself the right to one.
- Andrew Kidd