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TIFF 2022 Review: North of Normal – “An interesting, personal tale full of rich characters”

Courtesy of TIFF

When at the age of 15 Michelle (Sarah Gadon) ends up pregnant, her parents, soon to be known as Grandpa Dick (Robert Carlyle) and Grandma Jean (Janet Porter) move away from ‘capitalist society’ to Kootenay Plains, Alberta.  It’s an off-the-grid, commune situation where the families live in tepees, smoke pot and make love.  It’s 1979 and all the classic “hippy” tropes are alive and well here.

Michelle’s daughter, Cea Sunrise (River Price-Maenpaa) grows and learns amongst the trees.  She’s read to every night and plays in the woods, she’s taught lessons in values from her grandfather such as “Nothing is real except for the moment you’re in.”  But when her mother decides to leave with one of the nomadic members of the commune Cea also learns that the exposure to her mom’s cycle of boyfriends comes with consequences and instability.  It all leads to her going back to the commune where her mother leaves her to grow up with her grandparents.

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Many years later, Cea now a teenager (and now played by Amanda Fix) and Michelle are reunited.  Cea hopes to return to something better with hot water and indoor plumbing even.  But with just a modest four walls surrounding her, she yearns to build a better life for her and her mother, where dreams can come true.  A smart, industrious young woman, she is ever more the parent and teacher to her free-spirited mother.  But as their reunion deepens, Cea’s memories unlock past traumas long buried and brings up question of what this means for her future, and her relationship with her family.

Based on a true story, indeed the memoir of Cea Sunrise Person, North of Normal is an interesting, personal tale full of rich characters, not the least of which is Cea herself.  Both Price-Maenpaa and Fix are wonderful here, able to portray Cea with the required strength and conviction at any age.  Certainly, she is a young woman in control of her own destiny.  Gadon, at TIFF in 2021 with a different family drama All My Puny Sorrows, is almost always reliable, and she easily slips on Michelle’s eccentric persona.  As the commune’s promiscuous leader, Robert Carlyle is perfectly cast as there is something strangely magnetic about him on screen (or perhaps, despite a plethora of incredible credits to his name, I’m still seeing him as Rumplestiltskin from TV’s Once Upon a Time).

So then where does North of Normal falter?  Not in story nor performance but perhaps in construction that makes this film fall a bit flat.  Director Carly Stone plays this fairly safe jumping back and forth between past and present.  She plays with the colour palate slightly with memories shown in more muted tones, the present bright but sometimes washed out, overexposed almost.  Flashbacks build up to the trauma that is the wedge in this family, and tell Cea’s story, but being in smaller bites, it left me largely uninvested emotionally.  For full disclosure, I watched this as a screener prior to the festival, and found it easy to become distracted.  An audience’s experience with this in the theatre may be different.  I have no doubt that it is difficult to tell a person’s life story in just 90 minutes, but North of Normal left me feeling like there was so much more to explore, so much deeper to go.  So now, I’d be more apt to pick up the source material.

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