Runs Fri., Jan. 31–Thurs., Feb. 6 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 105 minutes.
Trends are hard to judge in documentary filmmaking, but I’d point to the new immersive focus on ordinary lives, not newsmakers or hot-button topics. We’ve recently seen portraits of humble fishermen (Leviathan) and collegians (At Berkeley) at NWFF; now first-time director Nick Bentgen ventures up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to examine three working-class families bound by the sport of snowmobile racing. Northern Light is not a sports doc, however. It takes a good hour to reach the International 500, an endurance race run on an icy outdoor oval. It also takes most of that hour to figure out who’s related to whom, what their names are, and so forth. (There is no narration, only a few intertitles.) Bentgen seems drawn to his subjects’ sheer normalcy rather than any distinguishing quirks of character or geography.
We watch as they hunt and pray, work on trucks and snowmobiles, and discuss the fear of an impending childbirth. (The camera later follows, at a discreet distance, into the delivery room.) Everyone smokes; most everyone is a little chubbier than the coastal ideal; and while no one talks politics, the town of Sault Ste. Marie is clearly in the red-state heartland. These people don’t “cling” to guns and God, as candidate Obama once so unfortunately mused; faith and firearms (and snowmobiles) are simply ingrained tradition. When one young dude, who knocked up his girlfriend, speaks of being fired and rehired at a better $11-per-hour job (“And I get paid weekly! ”), he sounds genuinely stoked at his good fortune. Later that girl’s father, a laconic but loving truck driver, withdraws $900 in cash for the entry fee to the I-500—top prize, $10,000. It’s like playing the lottery, but at least these men have a say in the odds.
Bentgen’s approach is respectfully Wisemanesque here. He never judges or condescends to his inarticulate subjects. Yet neither does Northern Lights ever make the case that their lives are any more worthy of scrutiny than our own. Seattle Weekly writer, Amazon coder, Starbucks barista—would you watch a doc about such mundane Seattleites? I doubt residents of the UP would be so fascinated by us.