Many middle-agers face the difficult challenge of being both a role model for their children and a caretaker for their elderly parents, while also pursuing a career and their own life. Some people can't handle the obligations, and the stress gets to them. That may be what happened to David Shorter who died of a heart attack at 39 ten years ago. His family doesn't know for sure. But what they do know is that his absence has deeply affected his two sons and his father. All three men's lives have been shaped by this loss.
James Burke directs this solid cross-generational drama with just the right mix of emotion and poignancy. He served as executive producer on two of our favorite spiritual films, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Levity. If you liked those films, you will take the characters in Aurora Borealis to heart as well.
Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson) hasn't been able to hold down a job for very long and doesn't seem to care. This bothers his friends in Minneapolis who have known each other since fourth grade. They drink beer together, watch the Vikings games, play hockey, and goes sledding in winter. No one can figure out why he has given up on life although there are signs that he never recovered from his father's death when he was just eight. His older brother, Jacob (Seven Pasquale), works at a bank, is married, and has two daughters. But he has a self-destructive side, too, which is manifested in the need to have sex with other women. Duncan accommodates his addiction by allowing him to use his apartment for these affairs. Neither brother is comfortable with the arrangement but they do not speak about it.
Out of a job again, Duncan visits his paternal grandparents, Ronald (Donald Sutherland) and Ruth (Louise Fletcher), who live in a seniors' apartment complex that has a view of the city. Ronald is a feisty man who has Parkinson's and every sign of approaching dementia; he claims he can see the northern lights from his balcony. Ronald is overjoyed when Duncan takes a job as a handy man in the building. The two men escape the confines of the apartment for trips to a hardware store and through a park. Ronald playfully calls these excursions "taking the stink off." Both have never gotten over David's early demise and the vacuum he left in their lives. It doesn't help that Ronald sometimes calls Duncan by his father's name.
This coming-of-age drama revolves around the transformation that takes place as Duncan draws closer to his grandfather and starts dating Kate (Juliette Lewis), his home care nurse. She has a vagabond spirit and has lived in many cities. He, on the other hand, has lived all his life in Minneapolis and can't imagine ever leaving. They begin a romantic dance with Kate taking the lead.
One of the many remarkable things about Aurora Borealis is that is does not flinch in its portrait of the debilitations of old age. Donald Sutherland gives a powerful and convincing performance as Ronald, a valiant man fighting the decline of his body and the dimming of his mind. Louise Fletcher as his loving wife conveys the difficulty of seeing a loved one in distress yet wanting to keep him close nonetheless. Joshua Jackson is suitably befuddled as he struggles to pull himself together and grow up. Juliette Lewis sparkles as a young woman with energy and enthusiasm to spare.
This is one of those small movies that covers a subject bigger productions wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Several times in the movie Ronald admits that he doesn't want people to see him "this way." But when Joshua really sees and hears his grandfather, he is changed, and so are we watching them. Sometimes the only demand of love is presence. Joshua learns to be there for his grandparents and in the process discovers what it means to be present in a relationship with a woman. Best of all, he comes to inhabit his own self in a new way. That's why we recommend this movie as a truly spiritual drama about the transforming powers of love.