If you live in the Northeast of the USA, then you are familiar with the term nor’easter. A Nor’easter is a storm condition that occurs when there is a convergence of the warmer Gulf Stream ocean currents and the cold air masses coming down from NE Canada. Without going into the technical side of meteorology, we can simply describe a Nor’easter as an area of vorticity, or a collision of strong elemental forces, or a bad storm.
In the film Nor’easter, written and directed by Andrew Brotzman, which was screened at the 15th Sarasota Film Festival on April 13th and 14th, we see another convergence. This time the storm generated is on a much smaller scale – we might call it a crisis of faith.
As the story opens, we learn about a family that suffered the loss of their son Josh. It was five years ago, and he simply vanished. Did he runaway? Was he abducted? There are no answers. No body. No clues. His family still grieves. At least the boy’s father still grieves and simultaneously clings to the belief that his son is alive. The boy’s mother wants to move on. This has caused a rift in the family.
The former parish priest, Fr. Michael had disappointed the family by not being able to provide the solace (and answers) they sought. And we will find out that Fr. Michael had his own spiritual crisis before him.
The new priest, Fr. Erik, played by David Call (NBC’s Smash, Dead Man’s Burden), is a relatively new priest, and is quite young. In fact, this is his first assignment. So Erik conceives of a plan. They will hold a formal funeral mass for the boy, to send his soul heavenward. Then there would be a funeral, including a casket. The only thing missing was a corpse.
Of course, an obituary is run in the town paper with an unexpected result. The boy returns. He’s upset about reading about his own funeral, and he’s back.
Only it isn’t that simple. The boy refuses to tell his parents, the police, or anyone – anything about where he has been, or what happened to him, or why or if he had a choice about whether or not to leave them. So while the boy’s return doesn’t advance the story, it does remove the question – is he alive or not?
The town priest, this same Fr. Erik is brought in and he is tasked with getting the boy, Josh, to open up about what has happened. But rather than filling in the blanks for his parents, the authorities, and the townsfolk, Josh asks Fr. Erik to hear his confession.
Once this happens, the priest is bound to silence.
There’s your set up.
Fr. Eric is sorely tested. The family is fractured and is in a severe downward spiral. Especially after the boy vanishes again. What should the priest do?
The film is set within a small community on an island off the coast of Maine. It is cold, the days are short, and the dark, brooding skies are merely a reflection of the lives of the characters we meet. To paraphrase the song sung by Bill Withers,
Aint no sunshine when he’s gone…
It’s not warm, when he’s away…
In the Director’s Statement, Mr. Brotzman writes:
Nor’easter addresses the ever-developing idea of what it means to be a spiritual individual in a society that measures value through ownership, control, and bottom-line results rather than through sacrifice and intent.
I think the subject is clear. Erik wants to do what he can to bring the boy back. If he breaks the code of the confessional, he will be challenging his own already somewhat shaky beliefs in his Church and its doctrines. If he clings to the strictures of his vows, then he will be failing the family.
Indeed it is a dilemma.
Director Brotzman has chosen a difficult topic for sure. And what he has done in his film is to intentionally cloud the issues so much so – that we never have a clear indication of anything. Everything about the boy’s leaving, his five years away, the nature of his relationship with his caretaker/captor is ambiguous, as well as his relationship with his own parents before his disappearance. So we must provide our own thoughts on the proceedings.
Before our eyes, Erik is grappling with his faith. So then we end up in the same place as Fr. Erik – unsure of what the right course of action is. Ultimately a decision is made, and the results aren’t what you expected. Which absolutely brings us back to the central question of faith – both our own and Fr. Erik’s.
My opinion is that this is a lot to carry around for us. It is hard to determine which is the most salient or compelling part of the film – is it the story of the boy’s disappearance or is the wavering faith of the community’s priest.
We can label the film a suspense film that has psychological as well as religious overtones to it. The film definitely does not go down the path of horror and dread. I will rate the film at three-point-two-five on a scale of one to five. David Call is superb as the young priest at a critical crossroads. And I liked the performance by Richard Bekins as the boy’s father. But the film isn’t light-hearted or light-spirited. Mr. Brotzman has not made a crowd pleaser. Rather he has offered us an opportunity to experience, through his film-making a difficult time, in a small place.But how much reward you can take from this film is still more of a rhetorical question that one with a finite answer.