A polite young lad whose bowl cut, sweater vest, and well-worn paperback copy of Moby-Dick clue us in to his precociousness before he even says a word finds himself shipped off to his grandparents’ farm in northern Vermont for unexplained reasons as Northern Borders begins — and we know long before he does that this impromptu visit will be an extended one.
Bruce Dern is cartoon-villain mean as the aging patriarch, railing on his son (a headmaster at a respected school) for not understanding real work and bluntly declaring that he’s never exchanged presents with anyone in his life.
Why such a man would agree to house the grandson he’s never met in the first place isn’t immediately clear. Sad family secrets abound on the secluded homestead in Jay Craven’s adaptation of the novel by Frank Mosher, and though these mini-revelations go a long way toward explaining the deep-seated tension that defines this unique family unit, it doesn’t make their complicated dynamic much more involving.
It’s easy to get lost in the natural beauty of Vermont, and Mosher (who worked on the film with several students as part of a Marlboro College program) clearly takes joy in doing so. The liveliest counterpart to that striking landscape isn’t Dern, but rather Jessica Hecht as his wayward daughter, who hits all the grace notes the rest of the film tends to miss.