"Nor'easter"

Psychological suspenser "Nor'easter" reps a promising if not entirely satisfying feature debut for writer-helmer Andrew Brotzman.

Psychological suspenser “Nor’easter” reps a promising if not entirely satisfying feature debut for writer-helmer Andrew Brotzman. Consistently intriguing effort at times feels uncertain how to balance its emphasis on two central protags: one a long-missing boy suddenly returned home, another a young priest experiencing doubts about his vocation. Nonetheless, it compels interest with its strong narrative hook and spare, ambivalent presentation. Further fest play is assured, with modest niche sales in various formats possible.

Richard (Richard Bekins) and Ellen Green (Haviland Morris) have lived under a cloud during the five years since their only child vanished. Erik (David Call), the new parish priest for their Maine island community, has persuaded them to finally move on by holding a funeral, since at this point there’s little reason to hope their son would return or is even alive.

Yet shortly after this symbolic, hopefully healing ceremony, the unthinkable occurs: Josh (Liam Aiken) simply shows up. Now nearly an adult, he’s surly and uncommunicative, refusing to say where he’s been or even whether he ran away or was abducted. With pressure mounting on all sides for him to reveal just what happened, he decides to confide in Erik, knowing that the priest would be unable to share anything learned during confession.

Already feeling shaky in his faith, Erik suffers fresh torments from this knowledge, as police and the trigger-tempered Richard, whose heavy disciplinary hand may have spurred Josh’s initial disappearance, sense that the cleric now knows more than he’s telling.

Brotzman heightens Erik’s moral quandary by keeping viewers in the dark about the boy’s experiences: Was he ever actually a captive? Did he genuinely grow to love his minder, or did he simply manifest Stockholm syndrome? It’s never even absolutely clear whether their relationship was sexual, raising without confirming the dread issue of pederasty. Nor is it clear just how unhappy the boy’s life was before he vanished.

These ambiguities may frustrate some viewers, but they generally enrich “Nor’easter” by making it more mystery than melodrama. (The mystery of Josh’s keeper also stirs, without directly addressing, some interesting ideas about physical and social isolation.) The story’s problem lies more in its uneasy narrative focus, its ambiguity over whether the principal p.o.v. is meant to be Josh’s or Eric’s. As a result, the film feels unnecessarily convoluted when it finally pivots on the priest’s spiritual crisis, a matter sufficiently complex in itself (and rarely treated as such in films) to make the attention spent on Josh and his secret life feel like a bit of a red herring.

Ultimately, one element distracts from rather than enhancing the other, as much as they depend on one another plotwise. Another script draft or editorial pass might have resolved that imbalance without diminishing the pic’s useful gray zones.

Nonetheless, “Nor’easter” is compelling throughout, with solid perfs and a distinctly chilly atmosphere aided by an astringent string-based score and handsome lensing of wintry rural locations.

Nor'easter

Production

Directed, written by Andrew Brotzman. A Nor'easter Prods. presentation. Produced by Veronica Nickel, Andrew Brotzman. Co-producers, Kit Bland, Kristie Lutz.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ian Bloom; editor, David Lowery; music, Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi; production designer, Lisa Myers; art director, Steven Harris; set decorator, Larin Brink; costume designer, Amy Kramer; sound, Vicki Lemar; assistant director, Kit Bland, Morgan Faust; casting, Michael Cassara, Todd Thaler. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 13, 2012. (In Mill Valley, Woodstock film festivals.) Running time: 85 MIN.

With

David Call, Richard Bekins, Liam Aiken, Haviland Morris, Rachel Brosnahan, Danny Burstein, Geary Smith, Emory Cohen, Peggy Muir, Clarissa Brown.

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