- Aurora Borealis (2005) movie review: Featuring a strong central performance by Joshua Jackson, James C.E. Burke’s well-intentioned family comedy-drama works best when not resorting to juvenile antics or sentimental tear-jerking.
Aurora Borealis movie review: Joshua Jackson provides genuine heart to oft-contrived family comedy-drama
Played by Joshua Jackson, twenty-something Duncan Shorter is the personable, unassuming protagonist of director James C.E. Burke and screenwriter Brent Boyd’s (arrested-)coming-of-age comedy-drama Aurora Borealis. Duncan is also quite probably the most non-average Average Joe in the United States.
At first glance, this Minneapolis resident may look, sound, and act like your typical – or what’s promulgated as “typical” – working-class American male: He watches football matches, plays hockey, and drinks beer with his boisterous pals.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. For unlike most of his friends and acquaintances, Duncan is a rebel at heart: He can’t hold a job, he has kept away from his family, he is intelligent and literate, he doesn’t enjoy killing animals, he has a flat stomach.
He’s also stuck in his adolescence, having never been able to recover from the unexpected death of his cocaine-addicted father.
Is there more to life than beer & hockey?
Things start to change after Duncan pays a visit to his grandparents, Ronald and Ruth (MASH and Ordinary People actor Donald Sutherland; Best Actress Oscar winner Louise Fletcher [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975]), who have recently moved into an apartment building for the elderly.
As grandson and grandfather bond, the latter begs the former to help him kill himself. The old man sees death as a release from his misery – Parkinson’s disease, kidney issues, encroaching dementia – which seems to be alleviated only when he imagines he is seeing the northern lights (aurora borealis) from his balcony.
Meanwhile, Duncan also becomes attached to a free-spirited health care worker, Kate (Juliette Lewis), who never seems to settle down in any one place.
So, could life have more to offer than beer drinking and amateur hockey games?
The moment of truth arrives when Kate announces that she is thinking of leaving snow-drenched Minneapolis for sunny San Diego. Will Duncan be able to shake off the ties that bind him to his past?
Low-key moments work best
Competently directed by James C.E. Burke and carried on Joshua Jackson’s reliable thespian shoulders – Donald Sutherland tries hard, and for the most part it shows – Aurora Borealis features several fine, low-key moments. One such has Duncan helping his grandfather pee in a public stall, a scene played neither as broad comedy nor as heavy drama. (Sutherland, for once, is unselfconsciously believable.)
That said, a number of other scenes in Brent Boyd’s screenplay tend to go on longer than they should, while others feel completely superfluous. In fact, Aurora Borealis could easily have been a good ten minutes shorter, especially in its second act.
But the chief reason this psychological comedy-drama never quite fulfills its potential for either pathos or humor is its overabundance of commercial concessions, which include an intrusive pop soundtrack, juvenile comic bits, and, perhaps most detrimental of all, a series of tidy resolutions that may please happy-ending addicts but that also fail to ring true.
Aurora Borealis (2005)
Director: James C.E. Burke.
Screenplay: Brent Boyd.
Cast: Joshua Jackson. Donald Sutherland. Juliette Lewis. Louise Fletcher. Steven Pasquale. Zack Ward. Katie Griffin. Tyler Labine.
“Aurora Borealis Movie (2005) Review” endnotes
Joshua Jackson Aurora Borealis movie image: Regent Releasing.
“Aurora Borealis Movie: Fine Jackson in Conventional Family Drama” last updated in September 2021.