James C.E. Burke’s drama “Aurora Borealis” opens in the icy waters of Minneapolis, echoing Duncan Shorter’s (Joshua Jackson) inability to connect with another human being. Duncan struggles to find a job while trying to cope with his father’s death ten years ago along with his grandfather’s (Donald Sutherland) ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s.
Duncan gets a break when he becomes romantically involved with Grandpa Ronald’s caretaker Kate (Juliette Lewis). Yet soon after, Duncan’s life becomes even more complicated when Ronald begs him to perform an unthinkable task – murder out of mercy. For Ronald, death is more respectable than slowly losing his grasp on reality while wasting away in a facility.
Despite its plot, which might lead you to believe this is a drawn-out tearjerker, “Aurora Borealis” is quite the opposite, and emerges as a hopeful and uplifting tale. Although Jackson plays a role in which he is relatively comfortable, (the “sweet screw-up”), he gives his performance more emotional depth than his previous, overdramatic forays – “Dawson’s Creek,” anyone? Lewis also breaks out of her reoccurring role as the atypical female to perform what may be her most human character to date.
However, no actor’s performance matches that of Sutherland – as he both literally and figuratively deteriorates, his hands trembling uncontrollably and voice shaking, he teaches Duncan that a life void of hope and experience is no life at all. In the end, Duncan decides to leave his hometown and travel to San Diego, into Kate’s excited embrace. We watch Duncan stumble and grow, and want to hold his hand, letting him know that everything will be all right. Yet ultimately, like Duncan, we learn to let go and explore opportunities that we have not yet considered before – in his life or our own.