Review: Documentary 'North by Current' Offers Graceful Moments, No Easy Answers

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 20, 2021

'North by Current'
'North by Current'  (Source:Reeling)

Trans documentary filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns home with his camera a number of times across several years to document a family tragedy, and to unravel the complexities his relationship to his sister and his parents.

"North by Current" begins by focusing on the death of Minax's infant niece. It's a subject that could have driven a true crime film, with accusations of long-term child abuse, allegations of a baby's body being covered in bruises, and a widening scope of investigation that proceeds to sweep up Minax's sister, Jesse, when she refuses to stop supporting her husband, David, whose prison record makes him an instant suspect.

The family are Mormon, and it's when a pathologist of the same faith reexamines the evidence that the truth comes out; but exonerations doesn't mean everything falls neatly into place. The tragedy, compounded by needless legal problems, only throws a harsher light onto longstanding family tensions, including the views Minax's parents hold about his being transgender. At one point, Mom and Dad begin relating how baby Kalla wasn't the only loss of a child the family has endured; they begin to speak of another girl, who, we quickly realize, was Minax himself before his transition.

Much of that discord comes from tehri divergent views of life, and of sexuality. Minax explains key points of Mormon teaching, including the idea that procreation is a sacred duty that seeks to provide human bodies for all the unborn souls in the universe. But procreation and sexuality don't seem to comfortably mesh in the Mormon mindset — at least, not from Minax's point of view. He has his own, less doctrinaire, idea of the role of sexuality in human life, and its connection not only to birth but to life's limits.

The film is filled with such musings, many of them seemingly to come from Minax's youthful film projects, in which he (or perhaps some other child) relfects on philosophical topics like memory and identity.

Those moments provide a context, and sometimes help the film acieve moments o fpoetry, but they are not necessarily illuminating, Far more revelatory are moments of cruelty, including Minax recalling his parents being told by church elders how, in Minax's words, "If God truly intended me to be a man, then I'd be given the correct genitals in the afterlife."

Then comes the cutting, dark punchline: "I'm clearly not the only one who puts 'sex' and 'death' in the same sentence."

At another juncture, Minax interrogates his mother about a statement she had made years earlier, positing that his being transgender was God's way of punishing her for reproductive transgressions (abortion, in this case) — a sentiment that's strikingly adjacent to some people's religious convictions that LGTBQ+ children are the result of an unborn child not being wanted.

Do fate and moral failure interlink in some spiritual chain of cause and effect? It's a question Minax struggles against, even as is family members sometimes seem to accept the idea. even after the investigation against Jesse and David falls apart, intimations of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and drug overdoses (which may or may not be inadvertent) summon a cloud of uncertainty. We may cling to doctrine or scripture, but is there ever such a thing as truth in the human world?

Minax's film technique suggests that question in his use of imagery (some of which feels disconnected from the narrative, enhancing a sense of reality's disorienting randomness). But the film is also replete with redemptive moments; where Minax wonders at a perceived lack of empathy on his part (and wonders if it's another aspect of his masculine gender identity), he also expresses deep compassion for his brother in law, and finally confesses that his familial bonds have only grown stronger throughout the family's years of turmoil. Most affecting — to us and, the film suggests, to Minax — is his relationship with Jesse. Getting her to pull a child's wagon around for the camera in a moment of levity, Minax wonders in voice over, "Who else would put up with me?"

We don't know. The film doesn't address aspects of Minax's life outside of the Michigan hometown he periodically revisits. In that way, the film is rigorous and disciplined: However far the apple might have fallen from the tree, the story, in this case, in confined to the orchard.

"North by Current" will be the Documentary Centerpiece at the Reeling Film Festival, screening Sept. 25.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.