TIFF22 REVIEW: North of Normal [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: 2022 (Canada)
    Studio: Elevation Pictures
    Director(s): Carly Stone
    Writer(s): Alexandra Weir / Cea Sunrise Person (memoir North Of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counterculture Family, and How I Survived Both)

Never give into fear.

With an adolescence as singular as the one Cea Sunrise Person led, it would be strange if she didn’t write a memoir. Growing up in Yukon territory tipis. Squatting in strangers’ vacation homes with her mother’s revolving door of boyfriends. Suddenly being thrust into civilization as a teen outcast who looked at televisions as something otherworldly. Modeling—something her grandfather railed against as the epitome of everything wrong with the capitalistic society he left behind—becomes Person’s dream to finally build something of her own with the financial stability her family never had (or wanted). One would assume that’s all it would prove, but a quick Google search says different. Person did live that dream. And maybe it was precisely because of everything that she experienced in youth.

Person’s first memoir detailing her youth and the tenuous relationship with her pot-smoking hippie of a mother (Sarah Gadon‘s Michelle) who gave birth at fifteen is now up on the big screen courtesy of director Carly Stone and screenwriter Alexandra Weir. While North of Normal stars newcomer Amanda Fix as the teenage Cea, however, it begins in the woods with a precocious and hilariously vulgar River Price-Maenpaa. She’s adopted the language and headstrong attitude from Papa Dick’s (Robert Carlyle) colorful and stubborn philosophies about life, liberty, and sexual awakening. Modesty was conversely not in Cea’s vocabulary growing up since everyone was having sex, doing drugs, and living off nature from the beginning. She knew both the familial creed to never let fear win and that she was loved.

The sad reality many of us face, however, is that love isn’t always enough. It can deflect some of the pain and even plaster over a bit courtesy of time and forgiveness, but, at the end of the day, Cea’s role models let her down because their core tenet of “finding one’s own path and never listening to others” only exists through selfishness. That selfishness in turn demands that those around you are left to fall through the cracks. Maybe that’s Papa Dick not preparing his own daughter to be the person he wanted her to be (telling her she’s a freeloader without ever getting off his butt to teach her different beyond empty pontifications isn’t it). Maybe it’s Michelle forever letting her decisions leave Cea the victim.

That’s why it’s Fix’s role that carries the film. Once we get past the expository nature of being raised in the wilderness, North of Normal becomes about Cea finally being able to say, “No.” This truth isn’t objective considering many people would say she was still too young, but objectivity doesn’t really fit the unconventional life she was forced to endure in the past. We’re witnessing her teenage rebellion in tandem with the numerous triggers that accompany living with Mom again after six years away. Whether Michelle’s new boyfriend (James D’Arcy‘s married stockbroker Sam) is different than the others doesn’t matter when the others were so bad. Add that his appearance once again shunts Cea into third wheel status and her frustrations quickly rise back to the surface.

With them come memories. While the moments at the start of the film were shone in a bright light and marred only by the limitations of their transient lifestyle, the ones flooding into Cea’s consciousness now are dark and full of anguish. It’s an intentional juxtaposition meant to ease us into generic coming-of-age quirk like laughing at Papa Dick’s matter-of-factness, endearing ourselves to Michelle’s flighty yet genuine demeanor, and growing melancholic when kind yet dumb boyfriends like Karl (Benedict Samuel) inevitably wear out their welcome. This isn’t fiction, though. Happy endings are bittersweet and hard won. The trauma Cea endures can no longer be brushed away with the ignorance of youth. She can’t afford to forgive and forget. Not when she’s always left picking up the pieces alone.

The result is weightier than you might expect. These characters are still Person’s family, and she loves them enough to not fully throw them under the bus for their shortcomings, but she’s also not going to gloss over the struggles of living between two worlds under the tutelage of adults who never stopped deluding themselves with the fantasy that they could ignore responsibility for those around them. Papa Dick is thus rendered as a tragic figure too entrenched in his obstinance to admit he might have been wrong—even if his eyes tell a different story (Carlyle is great in a small role). And Gadon plays Michelle with a keen sense of self-awareness despite constantly attempting to sweep bad vibes under the rug instead of confronting their consequences.

They become the two sides of the same coin that have dictated every part of Cea’s existence up until this point. And just because she had no choice before (Price-Maenpaa is wonderfully authentic, even when swearing like a sailor) doesn’t mean she didn’t know there was a choice to be had. Fix excels at leading the way for the rest of the film because of her mix of innocence and determination. Her Cea wants this reunion with Mom to work, believing things can change now that she’s old enough to make her voice be heard. Sadly, we don’t always get what we want. That’s what Weir and Stone provide: an awakening to the truth that she’s always been alone even when she wasn’t. So, why not embrace it?

courtesy of TIFF

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