Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis (2005)
Liberation Entertainment
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Juliette Lewis, Donald Sutherland, Louise Fletcher
Extras: Commentary Track, Interviews, Isolated Music Track, Still Gallery, Trailer

The sad part about much of the indie film scene is that so many truly wonderful movies fly under the radar. "Aurora Borealis, " a movie that played the film festival circuit as early as 2005 and barely received a limited theatrical release in 2006, is one such film, and it further proves that star power will not guarantee major backing. It seems that unless it is groundbreaking or quirky, an independent film is doomed to hit the DVD market with little fan fare. "Aurora Borealis," from a semi-autobiographical script by Brent Boyd, is a touching character piece, not so different from lots of other films, but without the Hollywood gloss and sentimentality. It is a picture that relies on honesty and real human relationships to reach its audience.

The focal point of the story is Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson), a confirmed loser who cannot keep a job, has no close relationships with anyone—including his family—and makes money by lending out his apartment to his brother for his extramarital trysts (à la "The Apartment"). Having lost his mother at a very young age and still struggling to get over the death of his father after 10 years, Duncan goes to visit his grandparents at the prompting of his brother (Steven Pasquale). Grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland) is in poor condition, suffering from Parkinson's disease and exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer's. His wife, Ruth (Louise Fletcher) cares for him but of course has difficulty administering the proper assistance that he needs. Seeing what dire straits his grandparents are in, Duncan takes a job as a handyman in their apartment building so that he can be near them, checking in every day and occasionally taking his wheelchair-bound grandfather out to "blow the stink off."

To assist Ronald in his medical treatment, Ruth hires a home medical assistant named Kate (Juliette Lewis). Having already heard stories about Duncan from his grandparents, Kate is immediately drawn to him, and vice versa. They seem an odd match at first, with her quirky and spirited personality clashing with his rather banal disposition, but she starts to bring out qualities in him that he was either unable or afraid to show before. She is the spark, so to speak, that has been missing from his life, and she initially brings out the best in him. Ronald also increasingly becomes an inspiration for Duncan to strive to be a better person. Although suicidal as a result of his growing pain and unhappiness, Ronald wants desperately to see Duncan make something of himself.

Of course, things do not remain blissful for long, as Duncan retreats back into his pathetic lifestyle as he sees his grandfather coming closer to death. He grows increasingly antagonistic toward his friends, and Kate questions whether or not she can stay with him. Ronald is the only source of light in their lives and the only one who can give them the encouragement that they need. At night, he has visions of the northern lights over the city, which everyone tells him is impossible because they live in Minneapolis. Ronald's insistence that he can see the aurora borealis becomes symbolic of his optimism and appreciation of life and his despair over the diseases that are slowly taking it away from him.

What holds "Aurora Borealis" together is the complex and very realistic relationships between the characters. They are troubled, broken, and tested in ways that most Hollywood films do not take the time to explore. All of the characters are flawed in one way or another, and yet we root for them because they are so real. Duncan is far from a conventional hero. In his mid-20s, he is at a crossroads that holds no clear solution to his problems. As played by Joshua Jackson, he is consistently likeable, even when he makes glaring mistakes. It is a testament to both Jackson's performance and Brent Boyd's screenplay that Duncan's flaws do not overpower him and we are constantly able to see the good person beneath. Boyd wisely does not allow the film to fall into sentimental clichés, especially in his depiction of Ronald. A character who could easily have turned into a one-note stereotype is a figure of wisdom, sadness, and insight. Donald Sutherland deserves much of the credit as well, believably capturing the physical handicaps of his character. His frequent suicide attempts are also handled with frankness and sensitivity.

Juliette Lewis occupies a fascinating position in the Hollywood limelight. Although never a box-office draw, she is a critically acclaimed and daring actress who can play anything from brazen to innocent to eccentric. She is always a delight to watch, and she is perfect as the love interest in this film. We totally buy into her character as a catalyst for Duncan's social improvement, not because the movie tells us to, but because she so naturally brings a sense of adventure and unpredictability to the story. She is, in many ways, the true light of this film.

Director James Burke, who only has one other feature film to his credit, displays a confidence with the material and a trust in his actors that is admirable in such a green filmmaker. He certainly had a good screenplay to work from. Even though it tackles some pretty heavy subject matter, the script is not without wit or joyous moments. Produced on a very small budget, the film nevertheless comes off professionally and defies its indie status, especially with its terrific cast. If it suffers from anything, it is slight overlength, but this is only a small quibble for a film that is uplifting and exhilarating without being artificial and manipulative.

In Liberation Entertainment's DVD release, you would never spot the film's independent roots in this beautiful transfer. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image is smooth and free of dirt and artifacts. Black levels look fine, and colors are strongly rendered throughout. Sharp contrast helps to bring out some good detail, and flesh tones appear natural. This transfer definitely looks better than I had anticipated, especially given the film's production history.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 track nicely delivers the dialogue-driven soundtrack. Voices are smooth and clear in the front channels, while ambience and music remain distinct in the rear speakers. The mix is all rather low-key, and it compliments the film very well. A 2.0 stereo track is also available, as is an isolated music track that showcases Mychael Danna's subdued but memorable score. There are no subtitle options.

The film is accompanied by an optional commentary track featuring director James Burke, writer Brent Boyd, and producers Rick Bieber and Scott Disharoon. These four provide a lively and interesting discussion of the production and history of the film. The commentary never lags for a moment and offers up some solid background information. This is an enjoyable track that adds to our appreciation of the film.

Some interview segments are also included. First up is a 10-minute segment with Joshua Jackson and Juliette Lewis. They discuss their relationships with their characters and their experiences working with legendary actors Donald Sutherland and Louise Fletcher. James Burke and Brent Boyd have their own 12-minute segment, discussing their feelings about the story and what brought them to it. Finally, a nine-minute spot is devoted to producers Rick Bieber and Scott Disharoon and their involvement in getting the film off the ground without studio backing. These interviews are not exactly enlightening, but they do compliment the film well enough and are worth looking at.

A still gallery is included, though curiously it only features screen captures from the actual film rather than photographs. A trailer rounds things off on this disc.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Aurora Borealis," and I highly recommend checking it out. It is a film that has sadly been given short shrift, and it deserves as much exposure as it can get. The performances are all excellent, from veteran actors like Donald Sutherland Juliette Lewis to budding star Joshua Jackson. He has come a long way from his days on "Dawson's Creek" and is revealing a depth that his popular reputation has previously hidden. Liberation Entertainment has given the movie a worthy release, and it is sure to be a rewarding experience.