Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Read an introduction to this new series of columns here.

Anyone holding fast to the stereotype of the Disney Channel Original Movie as a sunny place filled with bright colors, sassy teens, and superficial conflict will be brought up short by Northern Lights, a Canadian coproduction that served as the network’s first DCOM-branded TV movie in August 1997. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore the stereotype above in later films, believe you me, but it’s strange to contemplate where the network’s product would end up when confronted with where it started. For Northern Lights is an odd movie. Imagine if David Lynch tried to direct a family film and play it as straight as he could. Well, no, because then you’d end up with Lynch’s own great 1999 feature The Straight Story, and this is no that. But imagine if the above went wrong and you’d be close to the strange combination of somber sentimentality and small-town quirk found in this little picture.

With somewhat unexpected star power for a DCOM, Northern Lights stars Diane Keaton and Maury Chaykin as middle aged people who meet at a funeral. You can tell from that brief description alone that this is no ordinary Disney movie of any variety. We first meet Keaton, playing a busy New Yorker, when she receives a phone call informing her of an estranged brother’s sudden death. She distractedly rushes to the small town where he had been living and finds that it’s an odd place. She and the only other passenger who disembarked (that’s Chaykin) decide to share a taxi. They’re promptly driven around the corner by a growling one-armed cabbie. It turns out that many in the town have some kind of problem like a harelip, a mental disorder, or a disfigured face. The others are simply eccentric in one way or another. The hotel clerk can’t stop ringing the front desk’s bell. When Keaton asks him why, he matter-of-factly answers, “because I like its tone, I imagine.”

Largely a mournful mood piece in which only the charms of small town eccentricities can break down the uptight city gal’s heart and allow her to heal, the main thrust of the plot is given over to the custody of the dead man’s son, an adorable tyke played by Joseph Cross, who would grow up to be in the ensemble of great films like Milk, Lincoln, and even some that aren’t period pieces about inspiring American politicians. The little boy’s existence comes as a surprise to Keaton, who is named in the will as having co-custody. The other person charged with caring for the kid is none other than Chaykin, who turns out to be an old friend of the father’s. This is a shock to both parties, and so there’s the rest of the movie for you. It’s a low-key situation that progresses at its own pace as the characters slowly come to terms with what’s best for the future of the boy.

The script by John Hoffman, adapted from his play of the same name, is a halting, modest affair that veteran TV-director Linda Yellen films tenderly, if simply. It’s all so modest and resists juvenile tendencies that one would assume to run rampant through most Disney Channel productions for good or ill. Though that’s admirable, I couldn’t help but wish these ambitions ended up fueling a film that was more satisfying. As is, the treacliness of it all overwhelms the story’s modest melancholy. This may be the first film branded DCOM, but if at the end of this series of reviews there’s another picture that’s this far an outlier, I’ll be surprised.

Up next: Under Wraps

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