I’m certain that I’m not the only city slicker who has googled the benefits and methods of moving “off the grid”; disconnecting from the trappings, systems, and corruption of modern society in order to commune more closely with nature. Such a life is not for everyone however, as the protagonist of Carly Stone’s sophomore feature North of Normal finds out.

Deep in the Kootenay region of Alberta circa 1979, 8-year-old Cea Sunrise Person (River Price-Maenpaa) lives with her young single-mother Michelle (Sarah Gadon) under the supervision of her grandpa “Papa Dick” (Robert Carlyle) who has created a lakeside community which shuns the evils modern society, particularly capitalism and taxes. Despite high ideals, all is not well in paradise as Michelle chafes under her father’s dogmatic rule and opps to hit the road with current boyfriend Karl (Benedict Samuel) in the hopes of offering Cea and herself a better life.

The narrative jumps seven years as we find a teenage Cea (Amanda Fix) reuniting with Michelle in northern Ontario, their earlier grand plans having apparently unravelled (as we eventually learn via flashback). Cea struggles to reconnect with her mother who has shown no signs of maturing during their time apart, preferring to party while dating married family man Sam (James D’Arcy). After being spotted by a scout, Cea begins to pursue a modelling career which she hopes will finally give her and Michelle some needed stability. But will the carefree Michelle choose her own daughter over her current boyfriend-of-the-month?

North of Normal is based on the true story of a young woman who struggled to redefine herself after being raised in the wilderness. It’s a compelling tale that fortunately resists the urge to Americanize its subject and keep its Canadian setting (although COVID-related production issues forced the filmmakers to relocate to Ontario from the story’s original BC location).

While a tad threadbare in its set-up (I think an extra scene or two of young Cea’s commune life was warranted), the film efficiently draws us into Cea’s world across two timelines. The careful juggling of the two periods of her life are carefully edited to keep us engaged with a heavy dramatic twist well-planted with a memorable payoff. The film does show its budget limitations a tad with production design that’s not always period accurate continuing the annoying trend of movies set in the 80s that look a lot better than the 80s themselves (There was a lot more brown & orange, bad hair, and smoking).

Amanda Fix imbues Cea with a fiery determination to shape her own destiny from a fractured past with River Price-Maenpaa providing capable support as her adorable past counterpart, although she seems a tad young to convincingly read as an 8-year-old. Sarah Gadon effortlessly inhabits the thankless role of trainwreck Michelle whose genuine love for her daughter isn’t enough to overcome her selfishness and immaturity. 

Ultimately, Carly Stone’s second feature is a solid entry in the rather limited canon of true-life Canadian stories on the big screen and a refreshing reminder during blockbuster season that many of the best films are the ones that connect to us on a human level. No CGI or $300m budgets required.




North of Normal is currently screening in theatres in Vancouver and Calgary

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