Small-town Michigan, as introduced to us in filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Angelo Madsen Minax’s debut feature North by Current, is a barren tract beset by harsh winters and unflagging frost during the year’s earliest stages. Its location, a mere stone’s throw from the 45th parallel north, suggests a dual fidelity, one shared by its inhabitants in their daily tussle between banal homemaking duties and the caprices that increasingly buffet one’s carefully cultivated selfhood as senescence draws near. Time here, as we’re informed via voiceover, “has no meaning,” and it is precisely this zone that best receives Minax’s probe into communal memory. Shot over a five-year period and supplemented with interjections of home video, off-the-cuff, diaristic monologues, and, at a noteworthy juncture, clips from his previous shorts, Minax employs a strophic form to capture the grieving processes around him in the wake of unimaginable tragedy. Three years after his niece’s death, wrongfully ruled a homicide and leading to the conviction of his sister’s boyfriend (subsequently acquitted), the painful cogitations rekindled by adequate distance from loss have only just settled, their pangs burrowing into a central kernel long thought nullified. Filmed conversations and gatherings take on an impassive tension, as evinced by the quiet, knowing glances and pursed-lip intimations of discomfort that confound an attempt at recording, minimally mediated, the interactions between Minax’s family in a diner.
By truncating, as far as possible, close confidence and private vigils, the spotlight is taken off familial trauma and restorative dialogue, responsibly and sensitively figured as a confluence of souls twined. Instead, our vantage shifts along a more personal latitude: that of the filmmaker’s desire, as a trans-masculine man, for parental acceptance and affirmation in a traditional-minded Mormon household. The first year of footage, alone, registers their intentional deadnaming, arch disdain at his transition, and repeated assertions that it, too, was a form of bereavement for them. Though derisive expressions in that vein are contained to isolated interviews, and remain unincorporated into a fuller, more consistently visible project, their implications bear down on the otherwise repetitious vignettes that see Minax’s growing awareness of his dislocation from the toils endured by loved ones. But this is not an excavation of truths or untangling of fictions: originally aimed to inform and expose viewers to the internal faults of Grayling’s criminal justice system, the fracturing of Minax’s thesis signals at an intent, for us as much as himself, to spectate and pay heed. Despite the deceptively neat, celebratory thrust with which its final moments arrive, the film finds comfort in acknowledging the many wonders and curiosities that our lives, in their extropic successions of beginnings and ends, still have to offer.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.