North Star


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Colman Domingo in North Star
"A balanced portrait of three people at a difficult juncture in their lives."

There is love of many different kinds in PJ Palmer’s Oscar-qualifying short, and some of it helps and some of it harms.

Love, first of all, between rancher Jimmy (Colman Domingo) and his husband Craig (Malcolm Gets), visible in the way they look at each other, visible also in the way that Jimmy bathes Craig and spoons food into his mouth and does everything in his power to reassure him that he can still see him, that he still recognises the intelligence and personality within his wasted body. Love, also, for the place that they call home, their remote ranch, the tree clad hills around it, the air bright and crisp on the cusp of winter. And love for the animals who inhabit it, though there are not many now: the two dogs and, alone in the vast barn, the gentle bay mare, North Star (Butterscotch).

Copy picture

Then there is another love: that of Craig’s sister, Erin (Audrey Wasilewski), for her brother and for her interpretation of God. Erin tries to do her Christian duty. She has not forsaken Craig. She even tries to love Jimmy. It’s their sin, she tells him, that she hates. She comes to help, and when somebody needs full time care, it’s very hard to do without such assistance. She runs errands for them, obtains medication, possibly illegally. When Jimmy is out, she switches the television set, at which Craig is pointed, over to a religious channel full of homophobic rhetoric. There’s an implicit suggestion that he’s to blame for his suffering because his love for Jimmy has cut him off from God. To add to his discomfort, she talks to him as if he were an infant, talks about him on the phone with her friends, expressing her disgust at the way he lives. But he loves his sister; he knows that she’s agonised by the thought of him going to Hell, and he shows us something that we rarely get to see from disabled characters in cinema: pity for somebody else.

With only his eyes and slight movements of his head, Gets conveys a wealth of understanding and insight, building Craig into a complex character even as Erin treats him like a prize to be fought over. Domingo has other challenges to overcome, playing a character who is trying, for most of the length of the film, to hide his stress from those around him. His layered performance provides a great deal to explore in just half an hour. He’s so good with the animals that it’s easy to believe they’ve known him all their lives, and this contributes an important additional dimension to the story. Butterscotch won an award for her performance at the Wala Wala Movie Crush Film Festival, and it’s well deserved, her interactions with Domingo carrying considerable weight.

Those who like a bit of established star power will enjoy watching Kevin Bacon, in his element as a sleazy TV preacher who mentions fundraising at least as often as he mentions God. This element is tonally very much at odds with the gentleness and natural beauty of life on the ranch, and it may seem overblown, but if anything it’s a tame imitation of what those channels are really like. Palmer moves us around the room when it’s on, following Erin as she does the housework, so we don’t get it blasted at us too directly. There’s a similar aspect to her telephone conversations, which verge on comedic in their astonishing lack of propriety, but this is undercut by the difficulty of her underlying emotions. She is not monstered, even if she seems obscenely out of place. There is a human being there whose every action is informed by grief at her brother’s impending death, and her belief system has left her poorly equipped to handle it.

A balanced portrait of three people at a difficult juncture in their lives, the film doesn’t exploit Craig’s illness as many do, instead treating it simply as a fact of life, with the circumstances surrounding it serving as a prism through which to look at larger issues in US society and the harm done by forces which mitigate against real communication. As the title suggests, it’s a story about how we find direction in life and stay true to it no matter how chaotic everything else becomes, about what continues to shine when everything else is lost.

Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2022
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North Star packshot
A rural rancher and his ailing husband, struggling against poverty and isolation, make a heartbreaking decision in order to preserve the dignity of their marriage.

Director: PJ Palmer

Writer: PJ Palmer

Starring: Colman Domingo, Malcolm Gets, Audrey Wasilewski, Kevin Bacon, Butterscotch, Laura Innes, Chris Sheffield

Year: 2022

Runtime: 30 minutes

Country: US


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