Bruce Dern is one of cinema history’s most treasured actors. With a career spanning more than half a century, he has given the world some very random and some very offbeat performances. In 2013, his career saw new life injected into it with the bittersweet drama Nebraska and he continued to ride that gravy train with another picture, Northern Borders, a story of pain, resentment, and growing. His crusty old coot persona continues with this film and while it may not be for everyone, it is an honest performance full of many layers and varying emotions present not just in cranky seniors but in all people. Northern Borders may be a difficult film to digest but it is certainly an interesting one to watch.
10-year-old Austin Kittredge III (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) has just been sent to sleepy Kingdom County, Vermont in 1956 by his father who feels it’s the best thing for him. His grandparents are an uncomfortable bunch consisting of stone-faced Austin the 1st (Dern) and caring yet slightly detached Abiah (Genevieve Bujold). They are an odd couple who barely speak to one another because of decades of secrets and repressed emotions. Austin III’s presence serves to somewhat revitalize the aged couple’s lives and his time at their farm proves to be beneficial to all parties involved.
Northern Borders tells a story full of awkward silences and subtle drama. Not a lot happens in the film with the biggest conflict involving electrical wiring potentially wreaking havoc on Abiah’s apple orchards. Other than this, it’s a pretty dull picture with Dern looking off into the distance, mumbling dialogue, and giving everyone else in the film all the more reason to dislike him. His grumpiness on camera doesn’t seem to bother audiences however ever since his glorious comeback in Nebraska two years ago. For some reason, people want to see more of this side of Dern. It’s a side they can rely on and know exactly what they get with this type of character.
Aside from Dern’s sourpuss persona, we get an hauntingly brilliant performance from Genevieve Bujold, who plays a woman worn down with both age and being married to a genuine jerk. She is totally convincing in the role and her character’s odd fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and artifacts (she constantly calls Austin III “Tut”) only adds to the film’s weirdness. Young Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick does an admirable job as the young kid caught in the crossfire of these two warring senior citizens. His character is so innocent that he serves as the perfect yin to his grandparents’ yang.
Northern Borders may not be a great film but it isn’t completely devoid of merit. The acting is pretty decent and the camerawork is quite professional. Writer/director Jay Craven has taken Howard Frank Mosher’s novel of the same name and brought it to life on screen. The Vermont farmland is vividly shot and the rustic nature of the story’s setting is definitely drawn out with the visuals. A fine supporting performance from Jessica Hecht as an outlaw relative anchors things nicely. With all of these effective elements in place, Northern Borders is a serviceable film certainly worthy of one’s time.