‘Northern Light’: Snowmobiles and Survival in the Upper Peninsula

As you contemplate this stunning, lyrical, transporting film, you can see, with its hardworking subjects, that the road ahead may be different.

Editor’s note: Northern Light is screening now through 22 June at Masyles Cinema, part of the remarkable Documentary in Bloom series, with the 19 and 20 June screenings to be followed by Q&As with filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff.

“Up in the upper peninsula you have people who seem gruff and rough around the edges, but then you meet them and all of a sudden they’re telling you about their lives and being really sentimental, and that does not happen in New York. So I feel like that sort of soaring feeling comes from my relationship with the people I met.”

Nick Bentgen

The road looks endless. Tracking along a snowy highway in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the opening shot in Northern Light is both breathtaking and daunting. Snow flecks against a windshield, trees stretch into the gray sky as, gradually, another vehicle appears in the distance, hard to see. It’s as if you’re moving and not moving at the same time, pressing forward and pushed back.

In these early moments, shaped by a gorgeous strings score by composers Saunder Jurrians and Danny Bensi, Northern Light feels revelatory, introducing a world as familiar as it is incredible. And this is only one of many endless roads you’ll discover here, as the film follows the experiences of three working class families, as they plan for and participate in an annual 500 mile-long snowmobile race in Sault Ste. Marie.

Even as the race forms a narrative focus for the documentary, it also provides something more like a point of departure. For as the riders prepare their vehicles, share jokes or conjure strategies with their teammates, they also live their lives, at once rewarding and stressful.

Alternating between brief, intensely present moments and long, ponderable stretches of the future, the film connects strands of experiences with an unusual grace and respect. Walt spends as much time working in the garage on his skidoo as he does in his 18-wheeler, driving forever to support his family, worrying about money with his wife Becky, looking forward to the birth of his grandchild, even if he’s not quite sure what comes next. His back is troubling him, so driving — as a means to make a living and a chance at a $10,000 first prize — is increasingly challenging,

Walt’s rival and friend Isaac is something of a local racing star, part of a popular and frequently successful team, appearing on TV for an interview; when he’s not racing, he works in a tool and die shop, long hours. Isaac’s wife Emily, a former cheerleader, supports him unconditionally, appreciating the tensions of the race, patiently cleaning his visor between his rides (team members take turns over the 500 miles), insisting that he’s “doing so good”. restless when he’s riding, hoping against hope that he’ll win; during one scene, Emily, outfitted in a stylish parka, paces in a waiting area, even walks off screen as you can still hear her fretting, “Please don’t let him lose.” While she’s off screen, you’re left to gaze on a sign in frame, “Racing is Life”/

Certainly, you see this. But racing to where? Certainly, the families here, mean to move on, if not out of the UP, then at least into nicer homes or less anxiety over weekly paychecks. Marie spends her days working at Walmart and her evenings studying for her GRE; she seems never to sleep, looking after her family and imagining that next year will be better, that they’ll have more options. Movement is perpetual, even when it looks impossible. As she works over her books, taking notes, or looks out a window into a coming dusk, you understand her determination and her commitment, even as she, in these moments, seems not to be moving at all.

When Emily isn’t pacing at the race or exhorting Isaac’s efforts, also never stops moving. She goes the gym regularly, she prepares for a bodybuilding contest. On a treadmill, she’s performing and looking into an endlessness as intimidating as any of the highways Walt faces. “Tomorrow,” she says, “I get to have oatmeal. I’ve been telling everybody.” She strides, in rhythm, as she recounts her difficult, recent employment history for an off-screen listener. “I had four employers in that time frame, in 18 months. It’s stupid,” she sighs, “But that’s how it was.”

The woman you don’t see acknowledges the process, and he effort. “But it worked out,” she says, “And you got your unemployment?” Yes, Emily nods. She continues to pace. And as you contemplate this stunning, lyrical, transporting film, you can see, that the road ahead may be different.

RATING 9 / 10