The classic coming-of-age tale finds a new landscape and protagonist in "The Sun at Midnight." The wilderness it chooses to send its young First Nations star is the scenic tundra and mountains north of the Arctic Circle.
We can tell immediately that Lia, fond of both colorful fashion (pink hair, pink clothes, pink "princess" eyeshade) and colorful music (electronic pop), isn't going to take well to rural Canada. The Gwich'in 16-year-old, still mourning her mother's death, is sent to stay with her grandmother for a few months while her father works at the mine.
Lia's unwillingly dispatched by plane to Fort McPherson, a tiny community in the Northwest Territories above the Arctic Circle, where daylight lingers through the night.
In her first feature, Kristen Carthew, a former Canadian journalist, brought her small crew to the Arctic, a beautiful landscape with its own quality of light, that's more often home to documentary filmmakers than features.
Her rural adjustment failing, Lia steals a boat on the river in hopes of making it back to a city. Her escape quickly founders and she's rescued by Alfred, a solitary hunter older than her dad who happens to be on a purposeful journey of his own.
Jacobs, a Mohawk actress from Quebec, won a national award for her role in 2013's "Rhymes for Young Ghouls." Here, she has the difficult task of making a mourning teenager sympathetic and compelling as she eases from grumpiness toward openness and connection. Some touches are light, such as the subtlety of a city kid hiking very awkwardly in tundra in silver shoes. Others are more visibly demanding: crying, puking, fighting off an assault.
Alfred is portrayed by Duane Howard, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In "The Revenant," Howard was cast as Elk Dog, the chief of the Arikara pursuing Leonardo DiCaprio and his band of fur trappers. In "Sun," he acts a tough-love father figure on Lia's first excursion into both the wilderness, teaching her bits of Gwich'in culture along the way. Some of this tour is mournful — he's concerned about the future of the climate-change ravaged herds and what it means for his culture.
Yet some of Alfred's backcountry advice is delivered with dead-pan amusement. Lia, frightened, spies a raven overhead. Don't ravens mean death? she asks. "Ravens mean ravens," he replies. He also provides instructional information about moss usage.
Howard does excellent work as a reticent, lonesome adult on his own mission of redemption. As far as commitment to a scene goes, delivering lines about death and loss in close-up while a very large mosquito lands directly on your face surely deserves some sort of award at a Canadian or Alaskan film festival.
Pushed further into the mountains, the two develop a rapport. Lia softens toward the landscape after initially seeming indifferent. Alfred alludes to a distant relationship with his city-dwelling children, and seems glad to have someone interested in his skill-set.
In some scenes, accompanied by ambient music, Lia balances an oar on her hand in the tundra she's grown to appreciate, forming a recurring motif. Carthew makes full use of the expansive backdrop of the Northern Territories.
In the third act, the roles of savior and saved are reversed when Alfred is injured by a bear several days' removed from cell reception or motorized vehicles.
The arcs of coming-of-age tales are well-worn, but we return to them for good reason. "The Sun at Midnight" is a reminder of how fresh the form is in the right hands.