When Going Back is the Only Way Forward —Brandon Thornburg

“Necessity has the face of a dog.”
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A child believes that childhood is forever. This has been true as long as there have been children; it has never been more true than now. Pundits and pontificators tell us that parents are coddling their children into learned helplessness. North Passage, a new film from Popple Creek Pictures, suggests that civilization plays a larger role.

“The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry”, and over the course of human history, nature and politics and the whims of the powerful have conspired to interrupt the plans of children most especially. A Victorian orphan may have expected to live her young life outside a workhouse; a young English prep schooler may have planned to die somewhere other than the fields of France in 1916; our parents and grandparents would have preferred to be at Woodstock than Khe Sanh.

In contemporary society, however, the extent to which children are subject to outside forces is muted. Poverty and crime are factors, of course, but drafts and debtor’s prison and even childhood disease are seen as always-conquerable problems. A teenager in the Midwest, with a roof over her head and clothes on her back, can hardly be expected to be prepared for an unexpected disruption on a life-changing scale.

In the moody, atmospheric film, 14-year-old Frea experiences the kind of overwhelming crisis that has become so popular in escapist fiction —popular, arguably, because of the very insulation civilized society has provided. Our distance from the kinds of disasters that our ancestors lived in fear of has made it possible for us to be entertained by stories of the end of the world.

As Frea’s story opens, she is anxiously packing a large backpack while the television and her iPhone blare dire reports of civil unrest and warnings to stay inside. In contrast to this sterile cacophony, her father is in the dark basement loading a box full of tools, including that most important of human tools: A handgun.

Headed to Grandpa’s, they all pause at the front door, considering the unknown into which they are going to step; Frea and her sister alternate glances between the outside and their father, hoping that he has all the answers, that he will find a way for their organized life to resume. Children of a comfortable age, they must surely be unprepared for the magnitude of the loss they face.

Indeed, when next we see Frea and her family, they have made what seems to be permanent camp in the wilds of Wisconsin. Along with a group of survivors of the unnamed catastrophe, they persevere with grim determination, gathering berries, eating wild potatoes and hunting game. By this time they are almost beyond being frightened at the sound of distant gunfire. Frea would surely be at school now, if things were different, learning algebra and playing sports, chattering with friends about movies and music and boys. Instead she quietly suffers her losses, surrounded by people yet alone.

The soundtrack of North Passage, featuring original performances by Jayson Collins, Simon Sperl, Dean Granros and Jonathan Daniels, initially relies on sparse, detuned guitar to set the tone. The mood set by the music is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, another film which explores the internal struggles of a character battered by a world-changing event. But even Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, war-torn and cynical, may be better off than Frea. After all:

“I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.” (Captain Benjamin L. Willard, Apocalypse Now)

For all the loss she has suffered, the film suggests that the unkindest cut of all for Frea is that she has no mission. Or rather, that her mission is a purely passive one: To accept that the world as she knew it no longer exists, and to accept what that means for her.

Of the survivors, her grandfather seems to be the most sanguine—if not joyful—about the situation. “When I close my eyes, I can still see your great-grandad out there with a team and a plow, working. You will too, some day. It’s not a bad thing, going back.” But they are going back to a way of living that Frea doesn’t remember, and certainly would not have chosen for herself. When she closes her eyes, she sees not her great-grandfather, but the realities of the world as it will be for her—a world she fears.

Her fears are never spoken aloud—in fact, Frea herself hardly speaks throughout the film. Cut off from the noise of society, surrounded by the deafening silence of screaming crickets and crashing thunder, she has no real opportunity to verbalize her pain; instead we experience her trauma in her face. Talula Pontuti gives a haunted performance, her eyes narrating her story as she watches it being written for her.

Pontuti is a highlight of the film, but surely shares the “lead actor” role with the Wisconsin wilderness. A local production through and through, North Passage is beautifully photographed and filmed by director Kevin Pontuti and DP Ed Jakober and produced by Mimi French, depicting a “world after humanity” using locations mere hours from the bustling city. The actors, too, are locals – amateurs, but naturalistic and real throughout.

Their performances, interpreting a script by Charis Collins, bring Frea’s fears to life when – lost in the woods—she comes face to face with what “going back” might mean to a young girl: What the looks from a well-meaning and innocent teenaged boy might mean for even the tattered remains of her plans.

And so the time comes when we understand that Frea does have a mission—not one of passive acceptance, but of active choice. She must decide whether her loss will cripple her, whether she will make her choices based on what should be or what is, and whether she will define her new world or whether it will define her.

—Brandon Thornburg