The generational glue that binds families and the choices one makes as an adult are at issue in "Aurora Borealis," a bittersweet drama starring Joshua Jackson and Donald Sutherland. Most successful in capturing the emotional elements of its story, the film relies on its excellent cast to balance out sketchily drawn characters and the unfortunate obviousness of its plot.
Jackson, who starred as a pint-sized Minneapolis hockey player in the three "Mighty Ducks" movies while becoming a teen heartthrob on "Dawson's Creek," finds himself in the Twin Cities once again as a former hockey prodigy who squandered his considerable on-ice talents following the premature death of his father. Ten years later, his character, Duncan, is a 25-year-old slacker who moves from one dead-end job to another with the resignation of someone who has given up on life.
Duncan is trapped somewhere between the angry 15-year-old who misses his dad and the cynically comfortable milieu of hanging out with his friends, drinking beer, playing street hockey and watching the Vikings game every week. He sees these as communal rituals, based on loyalty and providing him stability and continuity but failing to recognize the slow embalming that is taking place, threatening to seal him away in a life unlived. He allows his older brother Jacob (Steven Pasquale), a successful, married banker with children, to use his apartment for trysts, not because of any affection for him but because Jacob leaves a $50 bill behind, and Duncan doesn't have the will to object on moral grounds.
Jacob browbeats Duncan into visiting their grandparents, Ronald and Ruth (Sutherland and Louis Fletcher), who have moved into the city in an apartment building for the elderly overlooking the Mississippi River with views of both the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. We get the sense that Duncan has not visited much in recent years, but the anniversary of his father's death and Ronald's deteriorating health conspire to bring them back together.
Jackson holds his own opposite a mischievously heartbreaking performance by Sutherland, giving an underwritten lead role some presence. Ronald has also given up on life, suffering from Parkinson's, dementia and possibly the onset of Alzheimer's, and he's feeling as though he has become a burden to his wife. Ronald's improbable claim that he has seen the northern lights ("aurora borealis") -- the luminous, ionospheric phenomena occasionally visible in the night sky of the upper latitudes -- from his balcony is doubted by all except Duncan, who visibly matures while reestablishing their relationship.
Ronald dotes on Duncan, though, and vividly recalls his hockey exploits, sadly losing perspective on the time that has passed and the missed opportunities they represent.
He obtrusively, but not unwontedly, plays matchmaker between Duncan and the sassy, quirky home healthcare provider Kate (a spirited Juliette Lewis), and a relationship blooms, testing Duncan's entrenched nihilism. Kate is a nomad, taking advantage of her in-demand profession to relocate frequently, hopscotching the country to whatever city sounds interesting. She draws out Duncan's innate intelligence and charm, and begins to challenge his lack of ambition. His largely indefensible claims of the loyalty he feels to the city and his friends begin to sound more and more like the inertia and fear of trying something new that they actually represent.
When the next stop on Kate's open road inevitably beckons, it sets in motion the film's key conflict: Will Duncan follow the free spirit and break away from his petrified life or will he choose to remain behind under the guise of caring for his grandfather?
Though events resolve themselves far too conveniently, screenwriter Brent Boyd and director James Burke effectively capture the dynamics of family, especially in an uncomfortably dead-on Thanksgiving dinner scene. The legacy of fathers failing their sons and the shared void Ronald and Duncan feel because of the absence of their son/father ring true even if some of the other plot elements do not.
Minneapolis makes for a metaphorically ripe backdrop piled with Mary Tyler Moore references and local sons Bob Dylan and former Replacements leader Paul Westerberg (used as a totemic presence that 'Mats fans may or may not find amusing) highlight a strong soundtrack that also includes the Finn Brothers and Rachel Yamagata.
MPAA rating: R for language
Distributed by Regent Releasing. Director James Burke. Producers Scott Disharoon, Rick Bieber. Screenplay by Brent Boyd. Director of photography Alar Kivilo. Editor Richard Nord. Costume designer Anne Dixon. Music Mychael Danna. Production designer Taavo Soodor. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
At selected theaters. Director James Burke will appear at the 7 p.m. screening tonight at Laemmle's One Colorado, Pasadena, and the 7 p.m. Saturday screening at Laemmle's Royal, West L.A.