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Sundance 2024 Review: A New Kind of Wilderness – “a moving film that celebrates love and family and explores the impact of grief.”

The Payne family appears in A New Kind of Wilderness by Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Maria Gros Vatne.

Living ‘off the grid’ is not an easy existence.  You are reliant on yourself and your abilities.  In the case Nik and Maria, they made a decision to live on a farm in rural Norway.  They wanted to escape the rat race and govern their own lives.  Now they grow their own food, and homeschool their three youngest children, Freja, Ulv, and Falk (the eldest, Ronja, Maria’s daughter from a previous relationship, goes to school).  Much of their education seems to happen outside.  The tight-knit Payne family has an enthusiasm for time spent in nature.  They spend so much time outdoors, not only tending their farm, but camping and hiking.  Maria and Nik’s ultimate goal is to make sure their children respect nature while having minimal impact on the planet.

When Maria tragically passes away from metastatic cervical cancer, the Payne family’s existence is turned upside down.  Grieving, but determined to honour his wife, Nik tries to do it all – keep up the farm and the homeschooling.  But, having subsisted on money from Maria’s photography he now faces having to bring in an income.  This ultimately means selling the farm, the idyllic place where his children have spent their entire lives and where they made memories as a family.  It also means a transition for the children to school and a new routine that is completely foreign.

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Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen first discovered Maria when she followed her blog,, a decade ago.  She found her posts inspiring, as Maria described her life as well as the ups and downs of the lifestyle her and Nik had chosen.  Jacobsen originally connected with her, interested in documenting their lives.  Filming was put on hold for various reasons, but when she picked back up years later, Maria was no longer alive.  Though they went through much debate, the other members of the Payne family agreed to allow Jacobsen to continue shooting.  The result is A New Kind of Wildernessa heartbreaking examination of grief, and a fascinating family portrait.

The family’s comfort level with Jacobsen is obvious.  The director almost seems a part of it, which makes this a unique viewing experience.  She captures the Payne’s intimate moments as they visit Maria’s grave, as Nik reveals to the children his need to sell the house, as older sister Ronja struggles in her new life with her biological father away from her siblings.  They are in crisis, yet they still let her in, and allow us into their lives.

The Payne family’s journey is captivating, as we see how they originally chose to live their lives, but also how they all deal with this incredibly difficult change.  We see as Nik struggles with wondering if he is doing the right thing trying to continue homeschooling the children.  He understandably struggles to adapt to the new circumstances, even contemplating moving back to his native England as he no longer feels a bond to Norway.  But, we see the plasticity of the children, who quickly learn to love their new school, a place they used to consider a ‘prison.’  We also see them adapt to technology, since iPads are part of their schooling, much to the chagrin of their father.

A New Kind of Wilderness is a touching watch.  In fact, watching the moment the family last drives away from the farm, it feels positively gut-wrenching.  The film is a powerful reminder of what’s important in life.  This family, and especially the children, just appreciate each other and everything they have while forging great admiration for the nature outside their four walls.  For instance, it’s so refreshing to see Freja accept with delight a birthday present from her father, a carved wooden spoon that he made, and proclaim that it’s the best birthday ever.  It’s a stark contrast to most kids I know who would rather the newest toy or tech than a thoughtful, handmade gift.

Jacobsen, in her second feature, creates a moving film that celebrates love and family and explores the impact of grief.  It is sensitively made, with Maria in mind, and still a part of everything.  While not everyone will agree with the decisions Nik and Maria made for their family, the film isn’t asking you to either.  It’s asking you to contemplate what it all means, how we connect with nature and ultimately each other.  Maria didn’t wish for her kids sense of self and adventure to be stifled, something we often do as we get older.  Perhaps there is room for it all.  For us to be open-minded.  For us to find balance.  For us to choose love, just as the Payne family does.

A New Kind of Wilderness premiered at the Sundance Film Festival January 19, 2924.  Its remaining in person screenings are sold out, however online viewing for those in the U.S is available January 25-29.  For more information head to

ANIMAL WARNING: For those sensitive to scenes with animals, a cow is shot and killed (off screen) and butchered (on screen) for the purpose of food.  It is done with great appreciation for the bull, but is graphic.

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