Northern Lights is a little-seen film that Diane Keaton starred in, produced for the Disney Channel. As part of its original movie programming, Northern Lights was made at a time when the Disney Channel wasn’t catering solely to tweens. It’s funny to watch the quirky and original Northern Lights when comparing it to the channel’s current crop of neon-colored, hyper-active films, usually vehicles for Disney’s stable of stars or spin-offs from hit show. The eccentric, warm tone of the film contrasts starkly with Hannah Montana or Teen Beach Movie. Instead of bright, shiny tween actors – Northern Lights boasts an appealingly diverse cast led by Keaton.
The film tells the story of Roberta Blumstein, a childless woman living in New York City, making a living at a call center selling tickets to Broadway shows. When she learns that her estranged younger brother died, she travels back to her hometown for the funeral, where she discovers that she has inherited custody of her 9-year-old nephew, Jack (Joseph Cross). To complicate matters, she finds out that she’s to share custody with her late brother’s close friend, Ben Rubadue (Maury Chaykin), a sad sack who is going through marital difficulties.
This is a strange film. The Voracious Filmgoer likens Northern Lights to Twin Peaks and the comparison is pretty apt. The small town Roberta visits is populated with eccentrics, and like in many of Lynch’s work, some have some physical difference that marks them – namely the executor of the will, Joe Scarlotti who is played by one of the film’s screenwriters, Joe Scarlotti. The town’s people all support Jack and Roberta learns that her dead brother led quite a life. Even though the residents all have particular idiosyncracies, they’re all kind and lovely – as is popular in most films about small town America – and Roberta’s prickly cynicism makes her the odd man out. Predictably, her iciness thaws as the locals endear themselves to Roberta, despite her self-imposed isolation.
It’s clear to see why Northern Lights was a TV movie, even if an Oscar-winning movie star like Diane Keaton starred in it – I can’t imagine how a film like this would make it in theaters. It works in small, incremental moments and is very low key – almost sleepy. Keaton’s usually dithering daffiness is replaced with an edginess – she sports a blond wig and is abrupt and curt with everyone, regardless of how well-meaning her companions may be.
Like Keaton’s other “sudden mom” film, 1987’s Baby Boom, the script has the actress’s character start to question her childless existence. Childless women are almost always portrayed as emotionally-stunted individuals who cannot develop appropriate or healthy feelings or relationships. In Northern Lights, Keaton is also saddled with the cliche – and like in Baby Boom, she overcomes her lack of maternal feelings to eventually fall in love with her adorable nephew. I’m still waiting for the movie that portrays childless women as warm and open, countering the stereotype that they’re emotionally barren.
But when one suspends these concerns, Northern Lights does manage to entertain. It’s a very sweet film – appropriate for family viewing, but thankfully not inundated with the fatal tropes of family films – i.e. wise cracking children, stupid adults, talking pets, broad comedy, etc. There are still problems with Northern Lights – mainly that it seems too enchanted with the eccentrics in the small town – but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself, nor can I say I was immune to the charms of the touching ending.
Director Linda Yellen is a TV movie vet, and within the restrictions of the genre limitations, she does well. She imbues the film with just enough quirkiness without dipping into the macabre or bizarre – this is, after all, a Disney movie. The movie bookended with video birthday messages to Jack – the scratchy black and white film that gives way to color sets the tone for the film: the experience of watching it will be a comfortable, low key affair, much like watching home movies.
Yellen also gets a wonderful performance from Joseph Cross as Jack, the lovely 9-year-old boy who tries his hardest to burrow himself into the calcified heart of his brittle aunt. Despite the kid’s inherent kindness, he’s not yucky sweet, and even if he’s a clever little boy, he’s not annoyingly precocious. As the adults who are suddenly parents, veteran character actor Maury Chaykin and Keaton both are excellent: Chaykin carries the sadness of his life on his substantial shoulders, and his open, generous face can portray a wide range of emotions. Keaton, playing against type, is also good, showing that she’s more than just a genial comedienne, but can play initially unlikable characters (unfortunately, the script has her return to her standard mainstream screen persona by the end of the film, though Keaton is able to ride these abrupt changes in character like a pro).
What I like about Northern Lights is that it’s a movie for kids but it’s not necessarily a kids’ movie, meaning it doesn’t talk down to children, nor does it pander. We don’t have to suffer through fart or snot jokes, nor do we have to endure goofy “street slang” or obnoxious sassiness from wiseacre children. Writers Kevin Kane and Hoffman explore some difficult topics and do so without glossing over the challenging nature of ideas such as death, familial dysfunction, estrangement, and physical disabilities. The script isn’t preachy but explores these ideas naturally.