Living Beyond Loss:
Death in the Family, Second Edition
This family drama has all the earmarks of someone's very personal and unique experience, but recognizable in its representations of humanity. Slow paced and low key, what traction it develops for more energetic attention spans is a function of performances that are worth slowing down for.
It's Minneapolis, a working man's city not known for vibrant inspiration and creativity. Duncan Shorter (Joshua Jackson, "Dawson's Creek") has the ambition of most of his peers--a group of young men who's collective idea of good living is in the camaraderie of hockey guys who meet at the bar to watch the games, sharing the sense of loyalty to the standards of their youth.
If there's a rebel non-conformist with the potential to rise beyond the group mentality, it's Duncan, with his growing tendency of restless disloyalty to the status quo. For one thing, he can't seem to keep a job, bouncing from one to another like a yo-yo, going through the motions of boring repetitive menial work for which he's ill suited. As soon as the boss detects his lack of interest in the work, Duncan's gone.
Good grandson that he is, he makes regular visits to his aging grandparents at their new senior residence. When grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland) sets forth on his philosophizing he refers to his unlikely balcony sightings of the Northern Lights, aka the Aurora Borealis, an almost apparition-like atmospheric phenomenon of undulating bands of color in the evening sky. To most of those who hear him, it's a random delusion of an Alzheimers patient, tolerated as a sign of mental deterioration. But Duncan defends his grandfather's claims as reality or, at least, representative of something meaningful. To grandmother Ruth (Louise Fletcher) it's simple hallucination.
The sadness of Ronald's deterioration is all the more tragic for the absence of the man between him and Duncan, Duncan's father and Ronald's son who died in an "unresolved" accident years earlier. The absence of this key component of the family has had a major influence on Duncan as he seeks the man he has yet to be.
Duncan is delighted when a handyman job opens at Ronald and Ruth's apartment building, giving him the opportunity to keep close to them. As a result, an even more gaping need is realized when he meets Ronald's straight-talking home nurse, Kate (Juliette Lewis, "Natural Born Killers"). A romantic relationship develops quickly in the fertile soil of her knowledge of him through Ronald's many glowing descriptions and Duncan's attractively easy-going spirit which lives up to the image.
Out of these threads enduring values are woven into the bitter sweet outcome of a tale that has more human reality to offer than dramatic sparkle. Its greatest offering is in what the story inspires in the form of performances, the first of which is an outwardly calm portrait by Sutherland of a dying man with one or two loose ends to tie up before those Northern Lights of his go out for the long haul. Lewis implants vibrant energy and a bit of sexual tension into a narrative that benefits greatly from her typically natural contribution.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals