A fair-to-middling coming-of-age tale is played by a stellar cast in an unusual locale in “Aurora Borealis.” Brent Boyd’s title should tell you that the picture is set in the north–Minnesota, to be specific–and as it was shot in winter, the atmosphere is decidedly chilly. But in detailing a wayward young man’s coming to terms with his troubled family past and his romance with an engaging caregiver to his ill grandfather, the picture obviously aims to warm the heart. But directed rather limply by James Burke, it never escapes seeming rather ordinary.
Joshua Jackson plays Duncan, a semi-slacker ambling his way through life, much to the disgust of his ambitious yuppie brother Jacob (Steven Pasquale) and his wife. Duncan is compelled to reassess his priorities when his ill grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland), and his overtaxed grandmother (Louise Fletcher) need his aid. He takes a janitorial job in their building and helps tend to the old man. But things escalate when Ronald asks him to assist him in committing suicide, and when Duncan and Kate (Juliette Lewis), a sprightly young nurse hired to provide therapy to granddad, discover that they’re attracted to one another. But they’re different sorts of people, with Duncan a sedentary fellow with no desire to leave Minneapolis and Kate the wandering kind.
Nothing much that happens in “Aurora Borealis” will come as a surprise, especially not the revelation that Duncan’s downcast attitude is the result of sadness over his father’s death; it could serve as a family-friendly TV movie if it weren’t for some low-brow bits of business involving old Ronald. And the metaphor of the winter’s cold as representing Duncan’s emotional chilliness is all too obvious. But it’s still reasonably affecting, mostly because of Sutherland’s showy but nonetheless compelling performance. There’s no denying that it’s overdone, but it definitely holds one’s interest. Jackson, by comparison, seems a trifle pallid, though he’s actually perfectly sound, while Lewis is more animated than is usually the case and Fletcher is suitably restrained.
Technically there’s nothing special about the picture, either, but it certainly captures the atmosphere of Minneapolis in the dead of winter, for which Alar Kivilo’s cinematography must be credited. But while “Aurora Borealis” may make one almost feel the Minnesota cold, it doesn’t generate enough dramatic heat to raise its emotional temperature much beyond average.