All too often, the recent young adult wave of big studio dystopian fiction films contain three root faults. First, they shoot off preposterous peril for the sake of peril like a pyromaniac loose in a fireworks warehouse. Secondly, within the peril is the overused trope of militarizing teens and children. Finally, the screenwriters feel the need to over-explain every little thing about its created universe as if the audience can’t think for themselves or be challenged to draw an inference or two. For the most part, the small budget independent film “Go North” successfully and thankfully operates above those three traps.
Opening in grassy yards of decrepit houses, the voiceover of a solitary teenager named Josh (Jacob Lofland of “The Free State of Jones” and “Mud”) breaks the confusion down. He speaks of an unseen disaster that caused a societal collapse where only the children remain in a disjointed America. The scrawny and gaunt boy is an inquisitive and resourceful collector of clocks and memories. Without functioning utilities, Josh and the other kids scrounge for food and resources in makeshift communities.
In the vacuum of any leadership or authority, the older jocks, complete with their characterizing letterman jackets, have ganged up on the weaker and younger to exert complete control. Led by the alpha male Caleb (Patrick Schwarzenegger of “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and his despotic crew, the dominant oppress the others into labor and, worse, their version of school education. Reciting a rewritten Pledge of Allegiance and touting strict rules like banning religion and ostracized judgment for tardiness, the past is forcibly forgotten and the future is blindly pushed.
Targeted by the sadistic Gentry (newcomer James Bloor) after standing up for Caleb’s subjugated sister Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark of “Philomena”), Josh decides to avoid the coming retribution. He gears up to leave town and head north looking for answers, help, and a different fate. Disappointed and disillusioned in her own lack of freedom and solace, Jessie joins Josh on the run as they try to stay ahead of Caleb, Gentry, and their cronies in hot pursuit riding their stashed away Delta 88.
Filmed in and around the weathered and overgrown slums of a derelict Detroit and its nearby suburbs, “Go North” impressively immerses the viewer in a tangible broken surburbia. Shot predominantly on location sets and with natural and distressed light by veteran documentary director of photography John Tipton, the film has an simple-yet-impressive and well-worn feel of authenticity that promotes the desolate setting necessary for the narrative. The mood is amplified further by the electronic drum beats, bells, and tones of Greg Kuehn’s score and an ideally timed drop of Saun and Starr’s swanky throwback tune “In the Night.”
Let’s circle back to the three aforementioned YA traps. The peril level is tamely moderate in “Go North” and its more domesticated struggle. The high school hierarchy of bullies replaces and downsizes any underage “boots on the ground.” Of the young ensemble, Jacob Lofland is the soulful standpoint. His coming-of-age layer is meshed well with the survival and escape angles. As a boost, Sophie Kennedy Clark brings the right hint of etherealness to brighten Lofland’s introverted guise. Lofland’s plainness is counterbalanced more by James Bloor’s demented loose screw than Patrick Schwarzenegger’s hunky villainy and matinee good looks.
Where “Go North” succeeds best is not falling for the third trope of Hollywood over-explanation. That is a big credit to the team of writer/director Matthew Ogens and co-writer Kyle Lierman, both crafting an original work and their debut feature film. Those viewers conditioned by “The Hunger Games” series of the world to like, or even need, simplification are going to gripe that too few questions are answered and too many are left open-ended. The film certainly meanders more than it punches with its social commentary. Flashbacks offer purposely few clues as to whatever ruination started this present trajectory, never showing you the full catastrophe.
I would rather call open-endedness a welcome challenge. Your own mental suggestion is always stronger than the explicit display. There is a keen storytelling advantage to be found in that, where the tension is more suggested than overt and preposterous. Your guessing matches that of the characters. In that regard, one can appreciate the exploratory and pondering quality of “Go North” compared to the pricey blockbusters.
LESSON #1: WHAT DO WE DO WHEN SOCIETY COLLAPSES-- Like all post-apocalyptic themed films, “Go North” forces you to put yourself in the characters shoes and choices. The film dabbles with how much order and structure is necessary to balance with basic living. The survival instinct already triggers fear. Being governed by fear multiplies that angst.
LESSON #2: TEENS ARE THE WORST VERSIONS OF MEN AND WOMEN-- Immaturity, false invincibility, and impetuous impatience are three traits that make teenagers terrible people to deal with. They lack the life experience to know they are wrong when they get lathered up for the wrong reasons. Instead of being reflective compromise, they are more likely to lash out.
LESSON #3: TEENS ARE THE BEST VERSIONS OF MEN AND WOMEN-- On the flip side to Lesson #2, the stubborn rawness of teenagers gives way to honesty, vigor, and youthful tenacity. A provoked or inspired teenager can push with an energy their adult counterparts. Those qualities can often cancel out their worst and serve them well as an age group.