Filmed in Vancouver by Alliance Communications, Prufrock Pictures, Blue Relief Prods. and Disney TV. Executive producers, Diane Keaton, Bill Robinson, Nina R. Sadowsky, Meg Ryan, Laurie Pozmantier; producer, Warren Carr; director, Linda Yellen; writers, John Hoffman, Kevin Kane; based on the play by Hoffman; Director Linda Yellen and writers John Hoffman and Kevin Kane have turned Hoffman’s one-man play into a whimsical exploration of a self-contained woman, a vulnerable divorced man and a wise, winning boy. Their story, weighed down by determinedly eccentric characters, a couple of bizarre situations and a fragile plotline, may be manipulative. But with Diane Keaton heading the lineup and Yellen imaginatively working the angles, “Northern Lights” turns out to be a sweet, if predictable, vidpic.
Keaton’s the smart, unsentimental and childless Manhattan widow Roberta, hurt by brother/musical partner Frank (Thomas Cavanaugh, briefly) when he deserted her years ago for the country life in a small New England town. His abrupt death sends her off for the first time to his stomping grounds, where Midwesterner Ben (Maury Chaykin), who’d known Frank in Ohio, also appears.
Frank’s 9-year-old son, Jack (Joseph Cross), whom Roberta had never heard about, turns up; he has been willed jointly to her and Ben. Of course she can’t take the boy — that familiar twist surfaces early on — and his mother’s, well, not around. Ben has his own problems, and there’s no one who can take Jack.
The tired dramatic dilemma piles up around sophisticated Roberta, who just wants out. Yellen and the writers turn for help to the burg’s local locos: wispy Daphne (Kathleen York), the town’s hostess, of sorts, and nitery singer; harelip Joe Scarlotti (writer Hoffman), whose speech difficulties fade as Roberta gets acclimatized; Aggie (Crystal Verge), merry multi-mother married to minister Emmett (Liam Blackwood).
There’s the Victorian hotel King Edward with its broken elevator, and there’s local entertainment, with Keaton singing Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” every bit as poignantly as she sang “Seems Like Old Times” in “Annie Hall.” In fact, Keaton’s interp of the tough Roberta has touching edges inside the comic aspects; Keaton’s again a delight.
Chaykin is generous, his cheerful, surprising Ben a pleasure. Cross’ endearing young Jack is a winner, and York’s appearances as Daphne are diverting. The telefilm’s wit, charm and innocence overcome any awkward passages , and the dialogue’s clean and purposeful. Joseph Yacoe’s camerawork is smart and surefire, and Jan Northrop’s editing helps set Yellen’s smart pace. Patrick Seymour’s score, aside from the Debussy bars, is unobtrusive and helpful, and Brent Thomas’ production designs are inventive.