Angelo Madsen Minax examines his family and their history with care, grace, and impeccable craft.
(This review is part of our 2021 coverage of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival)
Loss is a twisting, winding thing. Director Angelo Madsen Minax sets out to trace and retrace the losses he and his family have experienced in his new documentary North by Current. It’s an elegiac and heart-rending meditation on the mechanisms of memory, the metaphysics of coping, and the melodrama of life.
Following the 2013 death of Minax’s infant niece Kalla, his sister and brother-in-law were both temporarily charged with homicide and child abuse, which drove a deep wedge into his already still and silent midwestern Mormon family. Over four years from 2016-2020, Minax returned to rural Michigan, to sawmill country, to unearth the pain withering the roots of his family tree.
Minax’s poetic narrative eye is immediately apparent as haunting music blends into whirling and flickering home video images. While this footage is not the direct subject of the documentary, it enables North by Current to double as an extraordinary archival project. As generations of women rocking babies pass by, it becomes clear that Minax has combed through hours of footage to draw smart cinematic, lyrical, and historical connections.
(Minax) depicts time as metaphysical loops and spirals that refuse to have a goal, point, or conclusion.
Drawing those connections isn’t an easy feat for a transman from a devout Mormon upbringing. Video from the past shows a different person, a semi-unrecognizable self. To hear Minax’s parents talk about it, they consider this another child lost and mourned. The complexities of pain and grief run deep as Minax tries to reconcile with an unreturnable past he can’t make better and his parents a lost future without the rites of passage they wanted to experience.
Minax’s highly self-reflective and ritual upbringing as both a transman and religious participant gives him insight into the performativity of life. He approaches his film with a queer sense of anti-documentary, continually showing his audience that he is staging moments that have themselves occurred more than once. He depicts time as metaphysical loops and spirals, loops and spirals that refuse to have a goal, point, or conclusion.
As can happen with experimental films that deal with metaphysics and cinematics, this artfulness in places becomes literal. Throughout the film, a child’s voice asks philosophical questions about the nature of memory, death, art, and the afterlife. Eventually, Uncle Madsen directly addresses the unseen questioner when they engage in a dialogue that unnecessarily explains some of the documentary’s deeper themes. Continually underscoring bold ideas while overemphasizing circularity makes parts of North by Current drag.
Nevertheless, North by Current is an emotionally intelligent and highly performative work. It continually demonstrates Minax’s discerning and kaleidoscopic vision. Through an unflinchingly intimate portrait of his family’s private struggles, Angelo Madsen Minax offers an insightful and bold queer perspective on the grand dramas all families face.