North of Normal & Kokomo City
By Marc Glassman
North of Normal
Carly Stone, director
Alexandra Weir, script based on the memoir by Cea Sunrise Person
Starring: Amanda Fix (Cea Sunrise Person), Sarah Gadon (Michelle Person), Robert Carlyle (Papa Dick), James D’Arcy (Sam), Benedict Samuel (Karl), River Price-Maenpaa (Cea at 8), Riley O’Donnell (Tiffany), Janet Porter (Grandma Jeanne), Kelly Penner (Barry)
Being raised by hippies was a dream come true for some free-spirited youngsters in the Sixties and Seventies but for others, it was a nightmare, or at best, a mixed blessing. Part of the problem was in the naming: how many children wanted to be called Zowie Bowie or Moon Unit Zappa? The fashion model whose memoir is the inspiration for Carly Stone’s coming-of-age drama North of Normal had to deal with the moniker Cea Sunrise (See a sunrise—get it?) Person while having a difficult childhood, one worthy of a feature film.
Cea’s mother Michelle was only 15 when she was born in 1969, a time when free love, drugs and communes abounded in North America. Michelle and Cea’s Papa Dick and Grandma Jeanne easily accepted the birth and decided to take their daughter and granddaughter to live off the land in the beautiful forests and glorious vistas of Northern B.C., Alberta and the Yukon. While that kind of life can be wonderfully liberating—and the film shows it—the existence is rough and tumble, with shelter being provided by tipis and food coming from fishing and hunting. Perhaps tougher to deal with as a kid was the erotic lifestyle of the period, when having multiple partners was accepted as part of the hippie ethic. It hardly offered stability, something that most children desire.
North of Normal is an exceptional film in many ways, perhaps most in its frank handling of sexuality and its repercussions. We don’t see anything blatant: this is a film—and a memoir—about emotions, not carnality. But it’s soon obvious that although Papa Dick is somewhat romanticized as a loving patriarch who hunts game and provides support and sustenance to his family, his relationship to Grandma Jeanne has been frittered away through decades of meaningless though doubtless pleasurable encounters with other woman—and that his wife had been having lots of sex, too.
More importantly to Cea, her mother Michelle has hardly given up on sex despite becoming pregnant so young. Unlike her parents, she doesn’t seem have to been interested in many partners, but Michelle is clearly a serial monogamist, who feels incomplete without a lover. As North of Normal moves in an emotional stream-of-conscious style from past to present and back again, Cea’s life as the daughter of a mother whose trajectory Is bound up on finding a partner becomes the central drama of the film. For Cea, a child who has often been sent to live for years with her admittedly colorful grandparents, Dick and Jeanne, her greatest wish is to have a solid life with her mother. But as this film plays out, that’s exactly what won’t happen: Michelle will never be complete without another partner while for Cea, being with her mother would be the best thing possible.
The main plot of North of Normal is played out in the mid-‘80s when Cea is brought to Ottawa by Michelle from the Yukon where she has spent years with her grandparents. It’s finally their time to be together but it soon becomes apparent that Michelle is searching for a man and when she finds Sam, an emotional menage-a-trois occurs with Cea fighting the new guy for love and attention. Director Carly Stone and screenwriter Alexandra Weir—an all-woman team as key creatives—make the film work by giving us the back story of Michelle’s previous relationships with useless guys, or abusers, who hardly helped Cea grow up as a girl. Adding poignancy and depth is the depiction of Cea’s alternative life in the woods during much of her childhood amidst the quirky teachings of Papa Dick.
It’s evident that Cea isn’t ready for the “real world” of an Ottawa high school and mall culture, especially when she has to deal with prejudice based on her hippie childhood. Happily, her beauty provides an escape. It’s by becoming a model that she gets out of what would have been a very difficult existence. What is never confronted is Michelle’s performance as a mother: she’s terrible at it and although Cea loves her, it’s clear that, as a daughter, she’s not been given the respect and attention needed while growing up. Going for pathos rather than tragedy, Carly Stone has depicted a fraught relationship, which moves us without being overly melodramatic.
North of Normal features fine performances by the relative unknowns Amanda Fix and River Price-Maenpaa as Cea as a 17-year-old and a girl of 8. They work well with Sarah Gadon, who tackles the role of Michelle with real depth and determination. It’s tough to say this but the beautiful and patrician looking Gadon is battling her own great looks and style as a hippie mother, who finds it hard to get it together. It’s hard to believe her though she’s clearly acting up a storm. Robert Carlyle, the terrific Scottish actor who was brilliant in Trainspotting,
The Full Monty, and Hamish Macbeth, hasn’t had a great role in years and he’s wonderful as Papa Dick.
It’s rare to see such a truthful, and intimate film made by a young Canadian filmmaker. Kudos to Carly Stone for a fine film, which should be seen by a discerning public. While hardly perfect, it’s a fascinating watch. I urge you to see North of Normal.
(USA, 73 min.)
Dir/Editor/Cinematographer: D. Smith
While racial, social and sexual barriers are breaking down in progressive parts of the world including Toronto, a frank film about Black transgender sex workers is still bound to be controversial. D. Smith’s wildly innovative doc Kokomo City attracted attention and huge acclaim at this year’s Sundance festival and is now being released in Canada, where it will be fascinating to see how a general audience reacts to it.
It’s a truism that the strongest docs are made by people who have the best access to their subjects, and no one can fill the bill better than Smith. When he presented as a man, the director was one of the top music video makers, creating works for Lil Wayne, Clara, Keri Hilson, Billy Porter and Andre 3000, before having a bright career derailed due to sexual preference. Smith understands how prejudice can affect a life, limiting your working and social choices.
Having struggled for years to make a living in media despite obvious talent, Smith has made a comeback with this stylish and persuasive documentary featuring a quartet of remarkable people. Concentrating on Atlanta and New York, Smith picked two Black sex workers from each city: Koko Da Doll and Liyah Mitchell from Georgia and Big Apple residents Daniella Carter and Dominique Silver. Each is attractive, outspoken, honest and brutally frank about life as transgendered, even in major urban centres: it is not easy. A lot of the film—perhaps too much—is taken up with all four weighing in on how badly they’re treated. It’s moving and angry-making but feels over-determined, making the impact less forceful by the end of the documentary.
Smith is brilliant at shooting and editing in short dramatic bursts, which makes sense given the director’s background in music videos. It works extremely well for this film, where the four trans leads are mesmerizing monologists. They tell extraordinary stories about their “tricks,” the funniest and scariest being a tale by Liyah Mitchell about almost getting into a pistol fight with one, which ends with them actually having sex. Danielle Carter is the most thoughtful about how her transition from male to being a trans woman affected her mother. As Carter points out, Black women, including her mother, have problematic relationships with men, which can turn tragic, so “losing” another man, her son, to becoming a trans woman was something that she had great difficulty in absorbing.
While much of Smith’s film is upbeat and sexy, there’s room for political and social debate on topics, which radically affect the four leads. As Carter’s anecdote reveals, the whole issue of being trans is hotly discussed in the Black community. In a racist society like the U.S., masculinity is extremely important for Blacks: that’s a point made over and over again in this film. Being trans would be problematic in any current society, but Kokomo City makes it clear that it’s even tougher in a country where it’s so hard for Blacks to assert themselves under normal conditions. So, the trans speakers in the film seem justified in talking about the absolute anger they run into from some fellow Blacks in the U.S., whether in the South or even the East Coast. For Blacks, being masculine equates to power while transgendered people are in an extremely vulnerable situation. It makes Black trans people easy to attack from an emotional and political perspective. That’s not right, of course, but such an argument could seem valid to otherwise reasonable individuals.
Smith has crafted a powerful artistic film. Shot in black and white, it has a beauty to it that is rare in street-wise documentaries. The film’s imagery is stark, focusing mainly on the transgendered sex workers’ bodies and bedrooms, but with surprising cutaways to dancers, athletes and, in one memorable scene, a gradually animated flower. The argument is raised that being trans is empowering, giving the person some of the best qualities of males and females. It’s a transgressive thought on being a trans person.
Not everyone will want to see Kokomo City. It’s tough in many sections and the language isn’t pretty. But it’s a strong film, and about a truly divisive subject. Since the doc was made, one of the four subjects, Koko Da Doll, was found murdered, shot presumably by a client. This is a film about a difficult reality and deserves to be treated with respect.
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