Rites of passage have a long, celebrated history dating back to the earliest known civilizations. Sebou (Arabic for seventh day) is an ancient Egyptian rite of passage, with murals found in palaces and pyramids depicting such celebrations for several pharaohs. At seven days old, a baby is placed into a decorated sieve that is then set next to either a clay pot (females) or a kettle (males). Then an elder family member grinds mortar and pestle while praying and giving sage advice, all in the hopes of creating a healthy, obedient, healthy child. This is an oversimplification, leaving out the rituals the other family members are practicing, but the point remains this is a rite of passage at only seven days old which is still practiced today!
The city-state of Sparta’s first liminality of Agoge starts at the age of seven when they leave for extensive combat training. The final stage begins at eighteen when a standout candidate is given nothing but a knife and told to kill as many helots (slaves) as possible. Most readers are probably familiar with this rite of passage thanks to 300. This is not practiced today.
Various African tribes hailing from the savannas, which run across multiple countries of the continent including Kenya and Tanzania, engaged in lion hunting to determine the fiercest warriors among the new generations. Lion hunting is still legal in some African countries, with permits, but this transformation from teenager to adult ceremony has fallen by the wayside.
The promenade dance, or as everyone calls it, prom, is a prime example of a more contemporary rite of passage. The gap year is also an overlooked custom that is instrumental in allowing young adults to discover the world and their place within it. These are all mostly societal rites of passage. Modern-day tribes, aka one’s close-knit family (or very close friends, if one prefers), often have their own ways to celebrate and mark milestones in their lives.
“…she is unsure whether it is justified to shoot an animal.”
Cold November opens with Florence (Bijou Abas) finishing a gun safety class, for deer hunting season. Then she joins her mother, Amanda (Anna Klemp), Aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), and Uncle Craig (Karl Jacob) at her grandmother Georgia’s (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding) ranch. They gather provisions, and each takes a tower, nestled among the trees of the forest bordering the homestead, and wait for their chance to shoot a deer.
This is Florence’s first year participating, and she is conflicted about it. On the one hand, she longs to join the communal spirit her elders share, and on the other, she is unsure whether it is justified to shoot an animal. To help put some of her unease to rest, a small party is thrown to celebrate, and she is gifted with an heirloom- a gun that has been handed down from mother to daughter for the hunt for several generations.
Mia and Craig are still reeling from the loss of their daughter, Sweeney (Alaina Lucy Rivera), so they throw everything they have into helping Florence. One day, Amanda, a nurse, gets called into work and is hesitant to let Florence go out hunting on her own. Mia and Craig convince her to let them take their niece out and promise to watch out for her. But after leaving her tower, they don’t come back for hours and hours. Florence, who coincidentally recently got her first period, panics when she sees a deer. Can she pull the trigger and prove herself to her family?
Across the board, the acting from everyone is superb. Young Abas, with just one other credit to her name besides Cold November, gives a nuanced and believable performance as Florence. After emerging from the outhouse, she sees Mia in the truck, and they have a short conversation. Mia is the first one Florence tells about her period, as she was in the outhouse putting on a pad. The chemistry and rapport between them are fantastic. Fellner never overplays the ‘woe is me’ angle that could have cropped up from the Sweeney subplot, instead of turning her energy into something positive, while still mourning her child’s fate.
Writer-director-co-star Karl Jacob is all heart and fun as Uncle Craig. His speech about how he is sorry to Florence for leaving her for so long is remarkably touching and authentic. Klemp as the overworked mother is also quite good, and Fortier-Spalding is larger than life as the grandmother.
“…an engaging and truthful look at one young lady’s journey to prove herself…”
The dialogue is natural and believable, but the writing does hit a few snags. There are five characters of note in Cold November. Of those five, only Florence, Mia, and Craig, are three-dimensional beings whose backstories, while never explicitly stated (Mia and Craig haven’t seen each other in a long time because of Sweeney’s death) all come across the screen perfectly. Amanda and Georgia exist to be sure, and Amanda is a nurse, and that is all the audience knows about them. Georgia leaves to help her church with something or another, and the movie does not miss her at all. Amanda gets called into work, so both of them leave only a few days into Florence’s hunting experience. Both of this characters feel half-baked. Excising grandma so the viewer can get a better idea of Florence and Amanda’s relationship would have been the best movie. As it stands, there are only two significant sequences between mother and daughter, and their relationship is the least interesting aspect of the film.
As a director, Jacob creates a haunting yet affectionate atmosphere, which plays well into Florence’s conflicted feelings. As things ramp up, the isolation and chaos surrounding the young protagonist fit neatly with the jaw-dropping cinematography of North America’s naturally beautiful landscapes.
Cold November isn’t entirely flawless but thanks to beautiful cinematography and strong directing, coupled with a brilliant cast, it overcomes its flaws. In the end, it is an engaging and truthful look at one young lady’s journey to prove herself to her family and find her sense of purpose.
Cold November (2018) Directed by Karl Jacob. Written by Karl Jacob. Starring Bijou Abas, Karl Jacob, Anna Klemp, Heidi Fellner, Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding, and Alaina Lucy Rivera.