Children may be the future, but if the Lord of the Flies has taught us anything, it’s that the burden of responsibility and power can turn any potential youthful utopia into something that makes Aunty Entity’s Bartertown seem like reasonable civilization. The Orwellian community of mysteriously parent-less teens at the center of Go North hasn’t fared any better, a primal hierarchy where some high schoolers are more equal than others having already settled in, one that puts the collective ahead of the individual. With oppression firmly in place, the stage is set for adolescent rebellion, and while the meandering coming-of-age journey taken in this dystopian thriller from director Matt Ogens is not quite as messy and desperate as growing up can often be, an engrossing atmosphere and engaging characters ultimately make it worth the trip.
For vague reasons that no one can seem to recall, all of the adults in the world of Go North have gone missing, leaving a ghost town full of abandoned homes and businesses, the buildings fallen into disrepair and the orphaned children now left to fend for themselves. Perhaps out of habit, the youngsters still congregate every day at the local school, where a group of alpha male jocks rule the campus (nothing changes), instructing their juniors in basic survival techniques before putting them to work tending crops and chopping wood. No doubt those in power would argue that they exercise control, sometimes mercilessly so, for the greater good, but when a boy named Josh has had enough, he teams up with a like-minded girl named Jessie and escapes out into the great unknown world, in search of something better.
While two young people defying fascist domination in order to find themselves and seek a happier existence is not exactly an original premise in the world of sci-fi, Go North is refreshing in its organic setting, trading sterile white hallways for crumbling cement and overgrown forests. Outside of city limits, there is a beautiful softness to the apocalypse that suggests hope really could be nurtured somewhere out in all that untamed wilderness, a place where Josh and Jessie could naturally grow, independent yet together. Jacob Lofland (Mud) and Sophie Kennedy Clark play the twosome as natural as the nature they explore, projecting the awkwardness of those transitional years even through the sometimes sparse and stilted dialogue. Lofland in particular, whose gangling frame seems to be outgrowing itself, skillfully teeters from youthful timidity to quiet resolve, slow to let go of certain childhood behaviors as maturity forcefully nudges him forward. They are an easy pair to root for, devoid of futuristic babble and firmly grounded, relatable.
It’s not so easy for teenagers to break free from conformity, however. The peer pressure in Go North is supplied by Jessie’s older brother, Caleb (Patrick Schwarzenegger), and his posse of loyal frat-bro goons. The type of guy Darwin himself would endorse for football captain and prom king, Caleb believes that the rules he and his bully buddies enforce are what’s best for everyone (especially themselves), and for the sake of the tattered society they have patched together. Allowing Josh and Jessie to forge their own path might inspire others to follow suit, leaving them kings of nothing, and so the sinister side of governance rears its ugly head, the gang committed to tracking down the two runaways and administering punishment.
These moments of predators versus prey are where Go North really connects, injecting some much-needed tension into what would otherwise be a pleasant stroll through devastation. Though the hunters make some pretty impressive (i.e., unbelievable) leaps in their interpretations of ambiguous clues to help them stay on the scent, the dread elicited is worth it. Absolute power has corrupted these boys, but how far are they willing to go to keep it? Unfortunately, the script doesn’t allow the foreboding to linger long. Undefined consequences and the absence of real turmoil muddle the message abit. Also, instead of constantly looking over their shoulder like the prison escapees they are, upon evading the latest dangerous encounter the heroes often revert back to a safe place where having “normal kid” issues is okay, where harmless fun and puppy love still matter. The changes in tone sap the story of do-or-die momentum, creating hills and valleys that, while each skillfully constructed, don’t quite seem to mesh properly.
The uneven feeling isn’t helped by a general sense of underdevelopment. Though often the lack of specifics successfully contributes to an air of uncertainty and doom, other areas require a little too much faith from the audience in order for scenarios to work. It doesn’t seem like much time has passed since these kids have been on their own, but things sure have gotten organized then gone south fast. The logic behind the formation of this cinematic universe contains some holes whose filling may have made the impact of struggling free more deeply felt, and certain serendipities come across a little too tailor-made by writers needing to drive the plot forward.
Nevertheless, Go North casts an absorbing spell, its dreamy compositions, mysterious world, and solid performances enough to compensate for any flaws. The pursuit of individuality that so many teens and dystopian idealists strive for is a journey fraught with pain and sacrifice, but the destination is out there; one only needs to keep moving forward.