Angelo Madsen Minax’s remarkable documentary feature North By Current—which world premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, had its US premiere at last month’s Tribeca and is currently playing Utah’s Damn These Heels—sees the filmmaker return from Brooklyn, New York to his rural Michigan hometown where his Mormon family is dealing with an unthinkable tragedy. Minax’s infant niece has died unexpectedly and when the film opens we learn that his sister and her husband, who had been implicated in the baby’s death by the local authorities, have been cleared of any involvement.
Through shifting timelines, Minax delicately and poignantly weaves home video from his childhood and teenage years in the 80s and 90s with recent interviews with his family members. Openly staged recreations of various episodes with his parents, sister, and the filmmaker all playing themselves are also included alongside contemplative landscape shots and abstract images and sounds, artfully edited by Minax in a flowing, exploratory, stream of consciousness style. Alongside Minax’s present day narration, we hear the stylised, perceptive words of a wise beyond their years voice (Sigrid Harmon)—perhaps the filmmaker’s imagined childhood self—with the lyrical dialogue between them leading to some of the film’s most profound moments. “Memory must be created against an abundance of information, but also against an absence. It has to be constructed. You assemble the fractures, arrange the incidences to build a story”, we hear the younger voice muse, as Minax sets about assembling fragments of his family’s history and traumatic present to try to make some sense of it all, both for us and himself, while offering no simple answers.
In another director’s hands the end result might have been pretentious or obtuse, but what emerges here is an unflinching, nuanced, and deeply reflective family and self-portrait, as Minax examines his relationships, past behaviour as a son and “cruel sibling”, and ponders his sister’s and own mother’s experiences of motherhood and loss. At one point in the film Minax describes his sister as “the most impenetrable person” he knows, and she certainly makes for a fascinating subject through her brother’s lens.
In some absorbing but distressing sequences with the unsettling tone of an investigative crime thriller, Minax dwells on the death of his niece and the accusations of abuse and homicide that were leveled at his sister and brother-in-law, as a painful version of what might have happened begins to form.
In one crucial scene, Minax recalls his Mormon baptism. What that experience stirred in him feels like the crux of the film: “When you have a revelation, you acknowledge a need, a desire for something outside and beyond yourself; you start assessing the borders between belief and truth, what you know and what you trust.” Minax plays with ideas of truth and artifice, for instance as he shows us the scene before, during, and after an interview, or the smiles that are pasted on the faces of his sister and brother-and-law as they pose for a photograph, that then quickly disappear.
Alongside the death of Minax’s baby niece, an apparent parallel surfaces as the filmmaker’s mother says that she equates him being trans with a bereavement, telling him that she grieved for the loss of who she perceived him to be before he transitioned. Movingly, once he’s alone, Minax captures on camera his devastated reaction to his mother’s words. It’s a typically intimate, raw, and honest moment in the film as he goes on to have challenging and uncomfortable conversations with his immediate family, and himself. There’s one particular question for his mother that he’s had on lips for years but not been able to bring himself to utter until now. Perhaps having the camera there helped him get it out, or once something so terrible has happened to a family very little is left as taboo.
North By Current is an extraordinary, deeply personal, transcendent work of great power that’s harrowing at times but ultimately a journey of healing, as Minax addresses faith, mental health, addiction, grief, and domestic violence, all of which have directly impacted his family, while at the heart of the film there’s a rarely seen, rich, layered portrait of trans identity.
By James Kleinman
North By Current is currently playing at Damn These Heels queer film festival and can be streamed online Statewide in Utah until Sunday July 18th 2021.
North by Current had its world premiere at the 2021 Berlinale and its US premiere at Tribeca before playing Frameline and AFI Docs. For more information on the film and details on future screenings head to NorthByCurrent.com.