Sometimes, the only way to find yourself is to leave everything behind.
Based on the memoir written by Cea Sunrise Person, North of Normal unravels the author’s challenging and eccentric childhood. Living with her grandparents, Cea and her young mother Michelle (Sarah Gadon) retreat into the wilderness of Alberta in order to find a new life. However, when Michelle decides that it’s time to leave their unconventional home and trek on her own, she brings her daughter on a nomadic journey that will shape the way she views the world.
Directed by Carly Stone, North of Normal is an engaging coming-of-age story that comes alive as a result of its performances. Although the script is fairly solid, it’s the cast that is able to make it shine. Although it may have been based on a true story, these sorts of films don’t always feel honest. Even so, Normal wears its heart on its sleeve and charms the viewer. Featuring some wonderful work from Amanda Fix, Robert Carlyle and the rest of the cast, Normal feels authentic.
Having said this, the brightest star is once again Sarah Gadon who continues to show what she may be Canada’s best kept secret. As Michelle, Gadon has a maternal madness that sparkles onscreen. While her character’s motherly instincts are flawed, each scene is fueled by a love which seems to cover over a multitude of sins. With humility and courage, Gadon portrays Michelle with such humanity that one cannot help but both malign and appreciate her at the same time.
In many ways, one of the more interesting aspects of Normal are the lines that it draws between ‘running towards’ and ‘running away’. In Normal, every character seems to feel that the best way to face their problems is to avoid them. From cancer diagnoses to legal issues, this is a family that flees into the wilderness when they need a place to start over.
Of course, life doesn’t always work this way.
This tension between worlds is held within Cea, a young woman who wants to find stability but finds nothing but shifting sand in her life. Whether it is her mother’s erratic nature, Papa Dick’s struggles or an inability to fit into school, Cea simply does not have any role models that give her any sense of consistency within her life. While this can contain a sense of wonder in your youth, it can cause intense frustration when you’re trying to figure out who you want to be. Having spent her whole life on the road, Cea has come to the place where she wants to run towards her life yet she remains caught between two very different worlds. As a result, this incredible tension is soul-crushing to her and eventually puts a wedge within her relationship with her family.
However, yet again, Normal never judges its central family too harshly. In essence, there’s a very real sense within this film that even the most broken of us are worth valuing. Despite the pain and frustration that they can cause, few characters are demonized. In a fascinating mix, Normal paints its characters with a lens of grace, allowing them to live with their failings but also be loved in the process. Here, everyone’s scars can be seen but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
Because Normal realizes that none of us are.
North of Normal is available in theatres on Friday, July 28th, 2023..