|Aurora Borealis (2006)
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Donald Sutherland, Juliette Lewis, Louise Fletcher, Zack Ward, Tyler Labine, Timm Sharp, John Kapelos
Director: James Burke
Here’s a question for you: what is it about Joshua Jackson that finds virtually all of his films going straight to video?
The guy’s not a bad actor. In fact, he’s pretty much got that whole “charming rogue” thing down to a science, thanks to his years as Pacey on “Dawson’s Creek.” Lately, when he scores a role as a leading man, it’s like he can’t get a flick into theaters to save his life, no matter who his co-stars might be. Neither Dennis Hopper (“Americano”) nor the double-team action duo of Harvey Keitel and Claire Forlani (“Shadows in the Sun”) could help him accomplish it. Now it’s been confirmed that the combined efforts of Donald Sutherland, Juliette Lewis and Louise Fletcher couldn’t manage to break the curse with “Aurora Borealis,” either.
Is “curse” overstating things? Not in this case. There’s just gotta be some sort of sorcery involved when a film contains – no exaggeration – an Oscar-worthy performance from Donald Sutherland, yet it still can’t get beyond the festival circuit.
Jackson plays Duncan Shorter, a 25-year-old Minnesotan without much of a life plan. He’s been more or less coasting through his existence since his father died a decade before, jumping from job to job with (and my apologies to Dan Aykroyd for this unabashed swipe) the frequency of a cheap ham radio. Duncan’s family ties are pretty weak, too: he doesn’t visit his mother; his only contact with his brother Jacob (Steven Pasquale) is when Jacob borrows his apartment for the extramarital affair he’s having; and he’s been avoiding visiting his grandparents (Sutherland and Fletcher) because, well, he’s really unnerved at how his grandfather’s health is declining so dramatically. When Jacob guilts Duncan into heading over to see his grandparents, however, it starts him on a path leading back into their lives, into a job as a maintenance man at their apartment, and, eventually, into the arms of his grandfather’s caregiver, Kate (Lewis).
The romance between Duncan and Kate is one you’d see coming even if it wasn’t featured prominently on the movie poster, but the chemistry between Jackson and Lewis rings remarkably true. She’s as prone to jumping ship as he is – she takes her skills and moves from town to town – but their relationship is developed in a realistic manner, going from acquaintances to someone to hang out with, eventually to lovers. It’s always nice to see Lewis play someone normal rather than the eccentric roles she’s so prone to taking. There’s also a great joke for alt-rock fans, when Duncan accuses Kate of only moving to Minneapolis because she thought it would be like a Replacements song. She shrugs it off at first, then admits that maybe, just maybe, she’d like to smell Paul Westerberg’s hair. Notable as well are the few scenes where Duncan and Kate interact with some of Duncan’s childhood friends, played by, among others, Zach Ward (“Titus”), Tyler Labine (“Invasion”), and Timm Sharp (“Undeclared”), each of whom get at least a couple of hilarious lines of dialogue.
You may be unsurprised to learn that the heart of the film lies with Sutherland, who turns in a performance that earned a Best Actor award from AARP Magazine. While that may sound like faint praise, keep in mind he’s playing a man who’s suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and the onset of dementia. Who better to know how well he’s playing the role than an organization of retired people? Indeed, Sutherland’s performance is so incredible that it’s often disturbing to watch, as he gradually becomes more and more convinced that the best thing for himself and his family is to turn a shotgun on himself. Sutherland’s character owned a hardware store, so Duncan takes him to the local store in a wheelchair once a week, just so he can look around. Every time they’re in there, Jackson asks him if he wants to buy anything before they go, and he always says, “Shotgun shells?” The first time, it comes off almost as a joke, but it grows progressively more ominous. Fletcher’s role as his long-suffering wife, who’s fully prepared to stay by his side no matter what the future brings, is nowhere near as developed, but she nonetheless succeeds in creating a sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, even with strong performances from virtually the entire cast, “Aurora Borealis” isn’t without its problems. Despite Brent Boyd’s gift for writing snappy, realistic dialogue and the exemplary handling of Duncan’s family relationships, there are romantic clichés aplenty in the final third of the film, leading to a too-pat wrap-up. Still, there’s much more to recommend in this movie than to discredit, and absolutely no excuse for why it received so little notice in its theatrical release.
There’s a interesting and funny commentary from director James Burke, writer Brent Boyd and producers Rick Bieber and Scott Disharoon. They tell an anecdote about how, when they took Lewis and Jackson out to dinner, Jackson managed to accidentally eat some nuts (he’s allergic) despite having asked the waiter to be absolutely sure that there were no nuts in anything he was ordering. “For the record,” says one of them, “we got free dessert out of it.” There’s also a funny story about how the original script had one of Duncan’s friends regularly scamming patrons in his local bar for free drinks by having someone play Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on the jukebox, then claim sadly that his father was on that ship. But when they couldn’t get the rights to use the song, they instead ended up using the theme from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (Okay, maybe I’m the only one who finds that funny.) There are also interviews with the cast and crew, as well as an isolated music track, so that you can enjoy Mychael Danna’s score in all its glory.