Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson), the likable, unassuming protagonist of Aurora Borealis, is 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, but appearances are deceiving. Unlike most of his friends and acquaintances, at heart Duncan is a rebel. He can’t hold a job, he has kept away from his family, he doesn’t enjoy hunting, he talks to a sex-starved geek while all his friends are cheering at a football game on TV, he is intelligent and literate, and he even has a flat stomach. Some of that rebelliousness stems from Duncan’s inability to cope with the death of his cocaine-addicted father. (See synopsis.)
As he becomes closer to a free-spirited health care worker (Juliette Lewis), who never seems to settle down in any one place, and to his ailing grandfather (Donald Sutherland), who would rather die than go on living with Parkinson’s disease, kidney issues, and encroaching dementia, Duncan begins to realize that life may have more to offer than amateur hockey games.
Competently directed by James C. E. Burke, and carried on Joshua Jackson’s solid thespian shoulders (Sutherland tries hard, and for the most part it shows), Aurora Borealis offers several good, low-key moments. One such, has Duncan helping his grandfather pee in a public stall in a scene played neither as broad comedy nor as heavy drama. (Sutherland, for once, is unselfconsciously believable.) That potentially hazardous moment works beautifully.
That said, a number of other scenes tend to go on longer than they should, while others feel completely superfluous. Aurora Borealis could easily have been a good ten minutes shorter, especially in its second act.
But the chief reason why this psychological comedy-drama never quite fulfills its potential for either pathos or humor is an overabundance of commercial concessions, ranging from an intrusive pop soundtrack and several unfunny juvenile jokes to a series of tidy resolutions in Brent Boyd’s screenplay that may please happy-ending addicts but that also fail to ring true.
Aurora Borealis (2006). Dir.: James C. E. Burke. Scr.: Brent Boyd. Cast: Joshua Jackson, Donald Sutherland, Juliette Lewis, Louise Fletcher.
Now in his mid-20s, wintry Minneapolis resident Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson) is still stuck in his adolescence. He has never been able to recover from the unexpected death of his cocaine-addicted father. (Dad had stopped doing drugs, but may have gone on a binge the night he died of a heart attack.)
Unable to hold a job, Duncan is always broke. Every so often his successful banker brother, Jacob (Steven Pasquale), gives him $50 as a thank-you for using Duncan’s apartment for extra-marital trysts. When not waiting for his brother and assorted girlfriends to leave his flat, Duncan passes the time with his boisterous friends watching football matches, playing hockey, and drinking beer.
After visiting his grandparents, Ronald and Ruth (Donald Sutherland and Louise Fletcher), who have recently moved to an apartment building for the elderly, Duncan develops a deep fondness for his grandfather.
Ronald is suffering from kidney problems, Parkinson’s disease (his hand never stops shaking), and he is beginning to feel the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. But most importantly, both Duncan and Ronald still feel the loss of a close family member (one’s father; the other’s son). Duncan becomes so attached to his grandfather, that he gets a job as a maintenance man in his grandparents’ building.
Frustrated by his inability to live life to the fullest, and feeling like a burden to Ruth, Ronald begins begging his grandson to help him kill himself. The old man sees death as a release from his misery – which is perhaps alleviated only when Ronald imagines he is seeing the northern lights (“aurora borealis”) from his balcony.
As he becomes closer to both his grandfather and to a challenging, free-spirited health care worker, Kate (Juliette Lewis), who never seems to settle down in any one place, Duncan begins to realize that life may have more to offer than amateur hockey games.
The moment of truth comes 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?