North of Normal is an affecting drama about the life-altering impact of a youth in the wild. Happily, it embraces subtlety rather than over-the-top histrionics, resulting in a study of teenage wildlife that resonates strongly. Premiering at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, director Carly Stone’s second feature is a wise, warm, appropriately wounded winner. It is based on Cea Sunrise Person’s memoir of growing up in the Yukon with an aimless teenage mother, a free-spirited grandfather, and an assorted cast of hippie hangers-on. Sounds like we could be approaching sitcom territory, doesn’t it? Bravo to Stone, then, for never allowing the story to stray off course.
North of Normal begins in 1979, dropping us directly into a commune-ish existence in northern Canada. As explained via voiceover, Grandpa Dick (wonderfully played by Begbie himself, Robert Carlyle) “put his family into a VW van and drove north,” strong in the belief that the wilderness would solve his family’s problems. It is a life, Dick explains to some of their fellow denizens, spent “off the grid.” Its pleasures are many; for Dick, this involves constant tent-hopping. It is also, though, a place that “ain’t made for the faint of heart.” These opening moments are beautifully handled by Stone, who establishes a real sense of time and place.
One of the youngest folks there is Cea (played as a child by River Price-Maenpaa). She is close to her Grandpa Dick and her grandmother, and perhaps already a bit more wise than her mother, Michelle (Sarah Gadon). The latter finds herself increasingly at odds with her father, and ready to hit the road with Cea and Cea’s father. As the trio drives off, a quick cut takes us from the idyllic wilderness to grim, gray 1986 Ontario. Cea is now a teenager played by Amanda Fix, and she has spent the last six years in a very different world. She struggles to make friends and must come to grips with having a loving but immature mother (and her mother’s latest boyfriend).
Hope arrives in the form of a modeling contest, with the winner off to Paris. Typically for Cea, though, nothing goes according to plan. While there are a few flashbacks along the way, the majority of the film is spent with teenage Cea, a sharply intelligent girl who is far more mature than every adult in her orbit, especially her mother and her mother’s (married) new boyfriend (James D’Arcy).
As the film nears its conclusion there are a few missteps, including a violent (albeit warranted) turn in the final half-hour that feels disruptive and also a bit too easy. And while North of Normal deserves praise for its subtlety, the film’s wrap-up feels dramatically lacking. A quick search of Pearson’s background shows that once the events of the film concluded she had a fabulous career as a model; she even authored a second memoir about her adult life. Surprisingly, this information is not provided as a postscript. Perhaps it should have been shared, as it adds a fascinating dimension to a conclusion that feels startlingly abrupt.
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Sarah Gadon and Robert Carlyle. Gadon has deserved a role in a film like Normal for years now after often been the best thing about weak movies (like last year’s TIFF entry, All My Puny Sorrows). Michelle is a role of great complexity, and Gadon makes the character’s failings heartbreakingly believable. Carlyle is, as expected, a delightful force of nature. He also looks remarkably like the real Grandpa Dick, whose face we glimpse in some end-credit Polaroids.
As strong as Gadon and Caryle are here, North of Normal’s standout performance belongs to Amanda Fix. The young star has a limited resume; she will soon be seen in the Freevee series High School as well as Amazon’s upcoming Daisy Jones & the Six miniseries. As Cea, she is sweetly wide-eyed but carrying the burden of deep emotional scars; late in the film, we learn about past abuse at the hands of one of her mother’s boyfriends. Fix gives a legitimately stellar performance, one of the most impressive from a young actor this year.
North of Normal is so smart and self-assured that it is hard to believe it is only Toronto native Carly Stone’s second film as a director. It is the type of small-scale but emotionally complex entry that is always welcome at TIFF, one that marks Stone as a filmmaker to watch and Fix as a star of tomorrow. The adaptation by Alexandra Weir also deserves praise. It captures the exhilaration of a “unique” childhood, as well as its many, many complications. Happily, the real Cea’s life had a happy ending. Knowing this provides some comfort as the credits roll on North of Normal.
North of Normal premiered at Toronto International Film Festival.