What do you do when there’s nothing left for folks like you? Work has mostly dried up for the hardscrabble Yoopers of Northern Light, Nick Bentgen’s gorgeous observational documentary about two families of snowmobile racers in Michigan’s ice-packed Upper Peninsula. Without regular jobs to shape their existence or senses of self, these men and women go all in on hobbies, keeping up a regional way of life that endures even as the U.P. offers little in the way of livelihood.
Bentgen introduces us to Walt Komarnizki, a trucker who isn’t getting runs like he used to, but who won’t let cash-flow problems keep him from leading a team in the annual I-500 race in Sault Ste. Marie, even if the expense means his wife has to put off a crucial dental visit. Bentgen captures several painful conversations about money between Mr. and Mrs. Komarnizki, the heads of a large, raucous family. She reminds him that the state offers “emergency funding for electric”; late in the film, they resort to borrowing money from her mother. Meanwhile, their charming home shakes with life: Sons laugh and wrestle, a young girl they’ve taken in bounces through the short summer on a trampoline, and a teen daughter marvels to Walt at the baby kicking inside her. The family behaves as if the cameras aren’t there, and the Komarnizkis start to feel, as the film wears on, not like the subjects of a documentary but like cousins or in-laws we check in on a couple times a year. Rather than high drama, these are moments of plain being, a rare immersion into the everyday lives of strangers.
Those moments, mostly brief, are shot with a rigorous, revelatory beauty by Bentgen, even the on-the-fly chats caught in the houses. He bisects his frames with partitions and refrigerators, his people gently crammed into their homes — not unpleasantly, but just enough so we feel with them the wide-open thrill of the frozen lakes they escape to.
Northern Light skims over the months between two I-500 races but takes a good hour to do so. Often, the film feels like watching someone else page through a world-class book of photography, as images you might want to linger over slip past. Witness Walt hosing down some ducks, or the family watching a summer storm roll in, or the furrows the snowmobiles have carved into the expansive white snow. A star field, densely riddled with lights, is echoed by two later shots of snow spitting down at street lamps. As the title suggests, Bentgen is especially interested in the light in this darkest corner of the lower 48. He studies its play in the snow dust kicked up by racers, in lake mist and tufts of breath, in smoke from bonfires and the sputtering exhaust of stock cars.
There is drama, too, especially in the face of Emily Wolfgang, a young woman married to Isaac, an I-500 racer with a serious shot at winning the race. (Komarnizki tends to wind up in the middle of the pack.) High school sweethearts now in their twenties, the Wolfgangs appear to be a model couple: comely, buff, deeply supportive of each other. Isaac lives for his racing, but Emily, driven and promising, seems nerved up and uncertain about what she wants: We see her cleaning her home with anxious zeal, and apparently on the verge of tears while grinding through her epic gym workouts. “I had four employers in that time period, 18 months,” she tells someone as she powers up a stair machine. Then, with a sigh and a shake of her head: “This sucks!”
But she keeps going.
As the film wraps up, the Wolfgangs and the Komarnizkis gather for their year’s biggest event, that wickedly dangerous 500-mile snowmobile race. Bentgen isn’t especially committed to following the sports drama, although the race does prove to be a nail-biter, with injuries and late reversals of fortune. (The prize is $10,000, not even enough to buy a good new snowmobile.) Instead, even this lengthy sequence of Northern Light focuses on its people and the light they live in. Emily wipes down the face shield of Isaac’s helmet as his partner takes over the racing for some laps, and Walt’s teen daughter works the snack bar while a friend keeps joking, uncomfortably, that it would be hilarious if her baby turned out to be black.
In the end, nobody’s lives seem much changed by the race. Everyone soldiers on, discussing the finer points of unemployment and disability, of getting by in a place without opportunity. Hearteningly, Emily discovers a life-shaping hobby of her own: In the final scenes, the U.P.’s most dedicated exerciser enters a bikini contest for fitness buffs, which is certainly no less ridiculous than competitive snowmobiling. I won’t say whether she wins or loses, just that her moment backstage, afterward, with her racer husband, is as beautiful as everything else in this strange, singular heartbreaker of a film about life still flourishing in the most inhospitable conditions.