Film review: Good old-fashioned storytelling in Northern Borders’
By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer | April 15,2013
Jacqueline Hennesey as Theresa DuBois gives a theatrical reading in the new Jay Craven film, “Northern Borders,” which was screened in Montpelier on Friday.
The story may reek of caricatured Ye Olde Vermont, with its curmudgeons and other salt-of-the-earth “real characters,” and perhaps that is part of the reason why Jay Craven’s new film, “Northern Borders,” is compelling, entertaining and deeply touching storytelling.
“Northern Borders,” which premiered with five screenings across Vermont, is Craven’s fifth film based on books by Northeast Kingdom writer Howard Frank Mosher and certainly Craven’s most consistent and polished to date. Much of the success can be attributed to some fine ensemble acting, particularly from stars Genevieve Bujold, Bruce Dern and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick. (A 100-town New England tour is being planned.)
Ten-year-old Austen Kittredge III (Davey-Fitzpatrick) is sent to live with his grandparents in the fictitious rural Kingdom County, Vt., as his widower father doesn’t feel up to the task of bringing him up himself. (He’s right.)
What young Austen finds is a virtual elderly “War of the Roses” between his grandfather (Dern), self-described as the “meanest bastard in Kingdom County,” and his dotty grandmother Abiah (Bujold), fascinated with all things Egyptian — but all isn’t as it seems.
Young Austen, dubbed “Tut” by Abiah after the pharaoh, begins a series of adventures that begin to explain his very odd grandparents. He is treated as a virtual farm hand by both grandparents — but they are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, offering lessons along the way.
At school, Austen is befriended by Theresa DuBois, a charming but impossibly poor girl, whose family his grandfather suggests would be better off dead. After all, he kills wounded animals to end their pain. Still, he secretly gives Theresa’s family a dairy cow.
The grandparents are certainly giving young Austen an education. Abiah goes to court against her husband to prevent him from bringing electricity to his sawmill and the house as it might hurt her apple orchard. Fortunately, there is a judge with Vermont-style common sense.
Abiah succeeds in keeping the dreaded electricity out of her home — at first. When her daughters buy her a vacuum cleaner — that will help her battle the dreaded cluster flies — Abiah relents. It’s all terribly funny.
In the only inauthentic subplot, Aunt Liz, reputed to have stolen $42,000 from a bank, returns for a visit. She is queried by an FBI agent who is oblivious to the fact that the loot is stashed in her nearby horse’s saddlebags. Funny, but hardly believable.
Still, this story is about young Austen. After clamoring to leave, and the story’s momentarily tragic climax, he finds that he is one with his family.
Beautifully filmed largely around Vermont, “Northern Borders” is attractive and rewarding storytelling. The production quality is Craven’s highest to date, proving to be virtually seamless.
Still, it was the depth of these actors’ interaction that made this story truly compelling. Bujold mixed humor, warmth and a touch of insanity with beautiful grace. Dern successfully managed to convey Austen II’s shell, with only glimpses of the love underneath.
Davey-Fitzpatrick, actually 12, offered a deeply dimensional performance as young Austen, never overdone or cute, and always convincing. A necessary injection of warmth — and humor — was added by Jacqueline Hennesey’s charming portrayal of young Austen’s schoolmate Theresa.
“Northern Borders” was co-produced by Marlboro College, where Craven teaches. In addition to footing half the bill, the tiny southern Vermont school provided some of the filming staff from among Craven’s students. In fact, 34 students from 15 colleges joined 20 professionals on Craven’s film crew, offering a truly hands-on education (and lowered production costs).
Craven’s “Northern Borders,” based on Mosher’s 1994 novel, is just good old-fashioned storytelling.
For future screenings or information about Kingdom County Productions’ “Northern Borders,” directed by Jay Craven, go online to www.kingdomcounty.org.