Making his non-documentary directorial debut, Matthew Ogens delivers a fairly compelling and beautifully shot movie in Go North – a film could have been a train wreck in someone else’s hands. In the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe in which all adults have perished, a community of tweens and teens has emerged. The elder teens have taken the roles of teachers at a run down school where survival tips are taught and while everything looks peaceful enough on the surface, there’s an obvious undercurrent of mistrust and trepidation. One student, Josh (Lofland), isn’t satisfied with things and feels that there’s a better life beyond the “walls” of the community. Maybe there are still some adults out there and maybe there’s a better life. He secretly plans to head North to a cabin where he and his parents had been going when things took a turn for the worse. However, Josh isn’t the only one with secrets.
The first thing that comes to mind when it’s apparent that this is a community of kids is The Lord of the Flies. And indeed, it certainly does seem like a fair comparison. In The Lord of the Flies, the kids regress into being a band of savages. Rules that are made are quickly discarded and it becomes a Darwinian survival of the fittest game of kill or be killed. However, in Go North, the rules are simple and are followed. The structure and order of maintaining as normal a life as possible never falters, but there are some older teens who feel entitled to be above the rest of the group. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve allowed a bit of a class structure to develop and it seems to be taking its toll on some.
When Simon (Joe Cipriano), a young friend of Josh’s, is found to have broken one of the rules (“No religion of any kind”), he is banished and forced to “walk the line” – a punishment that sees the guilty party blindfolded and sent walking through a dark storm tunnel to the “outside” where they must remain. As it’s told to Simon, “We live together here, or we fend for ourselves out there”. Afterwards, Josh reveals his plan to Jessie (Kennedy Clark); he is going to leave and head North, certain that there’s a better life to be had than their current one. While she declines at first, an incident the following day involving herself, Josh and Gentry (James Bloor) (who serves as the right hand man to Caleb (Schwarzenegger), the older brother of Jessie and de facto leader of, at least, the law enforcement of the community), causes her to change her mind. In the morning, Josh and Jessie begin their journey North while (unbeknownst to them) her brother and Gentry attempt to track them down.
The landscape they find themselves in is one of disrepair, ruin and danger. Shot entirely in Detroit, it’s sad to see what was once one of America’s preeminent cities with so much urban decay and desolation. However, Ogens frames up all of his shots so that they show an almost haunting beauty to the surroundings, creating a visual dichotomy that is both melancholic and optimistic. However, it’s the last bit that Ogens fails to develop as well as he did the community and the world around it. It’s never really made clear what the danger is or could be – back at “home”, everyone makes a point to be off the streets before dark, almost like the specter of an unknown bogeyman hangs over the community. We see and hear some wild dogs at one point and it’s casually mentioned that there ARE wild dogs, but nothing is ever explicitly spoken about them being dangerous. It seems that if these mutts did pose such a major threat that they would make a better point of establishing it.
Go North is not a perfect film. It IS, however a very good film. The MacGuffin of what happened “that night” to all of the adults and the world as we knew it sets a nice stage for the coming of age tale that Ogens delivers. There are a couple of plot points (including one that could have been very interesting), that are forgotten and there will certainly be some people who are not satisfied without knowing what caused society to crumble in the first place, it’s simply not important to the story. What IS important is the journey of Josh and Jessie and the hope of a better life and never forgetting the past, something that was frowned upon back “home”.
Go North is in theaters and on VOD Friday, January 13th.