Many films are shot with natural light, but not all films shot with natural light end up looking this natural. The 70’s-esque 16mm feel of North serves director Phil Sheerin well in this lo-fi portrayal of a teenage boy’s reaction to his mother’s terminal illness–and his inability to copy with her decision to end her life. Starring Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), it is a compelling exploration of denial, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the helplessness of being a child who wishes his voice could be heard in a room full of adults.
“I wanted to make an emotional but unsentimental film,” writes director Phil Sheerin, who created North in his first year at National Film and Television School. The lack of sentimentality contributes to the blunt realness of a situation like this, and in keeping the tear count low, Phil’s film perhaps captures grief in a more realistic light. Films about parents dying are nothing new, but North flips the script on the traditional narrative; in this portrayal of grief, the main character refuses to acknowledge that someone is about to die, and the terminal illness is never actually named. What we get instead is the experience of a character in denial that can’t see how death might be better than treatment. Thanks to some shadowy cinematography and a main character who ends up eavesdropping on accident, the viewer–like Aaron–is left in the dark. Instead of telling the story with thick chunks of dialogue, Sheerin lets us experience the events through Aaron’s blank stares, nervous pacing, and awkward interactions with his family members. This technique shows his pain without beating us over the head with it, and it adds an air of subtly to a genre that so frequently lacks this quality.
For the first half of the film, Aaron’s actions are motivated by classic teenage selfishishness; he doesn’t want to lose the woman that has cared for him for his whole life, and though he tries to make his mum better again, it’s clear that she’d be better off with a painless death. Aaron struggles to have his voice heard, and there’s overwhelming sense of helplessness to his dilemma. Like someone sitting at the kids’ table, Aaron struggles to have his voice heard (though to be fair, he ignores what the adults say as well). In some scenes, he comes across like an invisible, mumbling ghost, unable to affect the scene around him, as the adults continue on with their conversations. Though it is an ensemble piece, you can’t help but look at anyone but Aaron (and the camera agrees, as it slowly pushes in on his anguished face).
At its core, North is a film about the self-defeating nature of denial, and it teaches us that we cannot control death; we can only control how we act when someone we loves passes on. It moves slowly towards a satisfying and appropriate conclusion, and as Aaron realizes he’s not the only one that will miss his mum’s presence–and is not the only one that loves her–he is finally able to start the process of becoming an adult.