When is a feature film not a feature film? When it’s only 53 minutes long is one possible answer. Not that it matters too much in writer/director Nicholas Connor’s debut in a category we might just choose to call “definitely not a short”.
Perhaps I’m being a dick, because all the elements of the feature are here – characters, a setting, a recognisable story arc, a satisfying conclusion – just boiled down to a nourishing concentrate, like a delicious stock.
According to a dedication at the end of the film, Connor’s drama is inspired by the work of Chris Cyprus, a Mossley-based (Greater Manchester) artist whose work could be very loosely called a mix of LS Lowry and Beryl Cook – there’s a Lowry-esque austerity in his full-frame landscapes but a joyous Cook-like celebration of everyday life too. This is the gentle and genteel working class of allotments and quick scuttles to the offie for a few bottles of beer.
Cyprus is not Ken Loach, in other words. Nor is Connor. Instead he gives us a filigree celebration of life and love, between Emma, a girl having panic attacks over her upcoming exams and whose mum has recently died, and Rob, her bezzie since infancy, who’s now got himself all romantically a-tangle over Emma but is too thick-tongued to say anything about it.
Rob also has a hole in his heart, a fact introduced so quietly, and whose consequences play out in such a visually restrained manner that, if Connor is vaguely apologising about what seems like a clunking metaphor, then it’s easily accepted.
For the most part, an orbiting dad here, a therapist talking Emma through her fears there, it’s a three-hander played out in living rooms, on doorsteps and in bus shelters, between Rob (Rhys Cadman), the would-be warrior/poet let down by his own body, Emma (Katie Quinn), the young woman unsure whether to let her light shine, and Mia (Megan Grady), Emma’s younger sister, a gobbie goad, an explicatory assistant and a sparkle of brightness when things threaten to get introspective. This is teenage love, so of course it does.
All these interactions – Rob/Emma, Rob/Mia, Emma/Mia – are where the film’s claims to specialness live. There’s a directness and honesty to them that’s touching and beautiful to watch. You want these people to succeed. They feel like people we know. Or that I know – I grew up in a red-brick town like this.
There are no grand political points being made, or if there are they are more general ones about life chances in slightly neglected northern towns. It’s not Ken Loach, as I said, and Connor underlines that with tiny dream sequences full of slo-mo mist and coloured light, while the band Some Kind of Illness throb and hover over the whole thing like some update of Vinnie Riley.
It’s the right choice for a quaveringly poetic film about finding the beauty in the everyday, in the sodium glow of a streetlight – the northern light of the title.
Northern Lights – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2016