AFI DOCS 2021 REVIEW! Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax created North By Current as a memoir of sorts, documenting a moment in time with his Michigan-based family. After the death of his baby niece, there was a cloud of suspicion over the family. Minax’s parents had been looking after the child, as had his sister, Jesse, when the infant suffered head trauma and died. Jesse was ultimately acquitted of child abuse and murder. Her husband, however, remains under suspicion. As dramatic and traumatic as that event is, it’s not what the film is about.
In fact, this documentary is not the one Minax intended to make. After going back to his small hometown, the writer/director started the project to shine a light on the corrupt criminal justice system. He wound up making a film about the challenges of dealing with family, particularly as a Trans man coming home to a family that struggles with his post-transition identity. Minax digs back into his own life through photos, home movies, and interviews to present a narrative that’s less of a linear story and more of a tone poem in visuals, sounds, words, and music. It’s an impressionistic journey through a difficult life.
“…the death of an infant child, the culture of the Mormon church, and having had a child transition gender identification…”
There’s a maxim in filmmaking and writing: the more specific and detailed a story is, the more generally it applies — North By Current disputes that assertion to some extent. While most families have their difficulties, there are three elements in this particular family that, taken together, make their situation, if not unique, then at the least very rare. Dealing with the death of an infant child, the culture of the Mormon church, and having had a child transition gender identification, puts a very specific context around the Minaxes. It makes everyone harder, but not impossible, to relate to. One can sympathize with their struggles but still be unable to empathize with what they are feeling in the moments captured, as it’s not an experience most people can fully understand.
There’s a very telling moment when Minax’s mother accidentally misgenders him, then catches herself. That sums up the whole experience of the film. The tension of a family trying hard to understand and accept each other under extraordinary circumstances hangs heavy throughout. His mother also shares a vulnerable moment on camera, where she apologizes for her reactions to him being Trans. It’s a lovely, healing moment.
Viewers will take away a spectrum of emotional impacts from North By Current. The notion of having such private moments recorded is horrifying, as is contemplating living in the aftermath of the death of an infant child. There are, however, sweeter spaces where love and forgiveness come to the surface. It’s complex, difficult, confusing, and sometimes rewarding, just like life.
"…complex, difficult, confusing, and sometimes rewarding, just like life."