North Country Movie Review

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Director Niki Caro is a female protagonist's best friend. In Whale Rider, Caro received widespread acclaim for her story about a determined young girl's struggle to break down traditional male stereotypes and take the throne of her land. Caro's follow-up is North Country, where she teams up with one of today's strongest female leads to tell the story that precipitated the groundbreaking laws protecting women against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Inspired by true events during the late 1980s at a Northern Minnesota iron mine, Country focuses on Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a recently separated young mother who has returned to her hometown to reassemble her life. But Josey's return does not sit well with the locals. They call her a slut, a whore, and whisper wisecracks about her two children born out of wedlock. Even Josey's father Hank (Richard Jenkins) resents her return, saying she has brought nothing but shame to the family.

Despite all of the pessimism, Josey is determined to make a better life for herself and her kids. An old friend (Frances McDormand) encourages Josey to apply for a job at the local mining company where she works. This decision is strongly opposed by her parents. Hank (who also works at the mine) calls Josey a lesbian, while her mom Alice (Sissy Spacek) insists Josey's place is in the home caring for her children. This negativity only furthers Josey's drive to prove everyone wrong; she accepts the job.

And the harassment begins.

Josey is subjected to a pre-employment gynecological exam where a company doctor must "certify" that she's not pregnant. On her first day, Josey's boss tells her and the other new female employees that though they have no business working there, there was nothing he could do about it. Josey is tasked with cleaning and scrubbing mining equipment for a direct supervisor who insists he'll have no "fatties" on his team. This is just the tip of the harassment iceberg. Soon, dildos are planted in lunch buckets and derogatory messages are written in fecal matter on the women's locker room walls. Lawsuits eventually ensue.

Caro paints some of the most shocking and loathsome landscapes of sexual harassment conceivable. At times the repulsiveness is so heavy that Country becomes nearly unbearable to watch. Yet, what's most commendable about Caro's shrewd direction is that she avoids the pitfalls other filmmakers would take relying on gratuitous violence to make their point. Instead, she patiently waits for the story to unfold and allows the finely conceived dialogue and visuals to provide the film's strongest bite.

Michael Seitzman's highly competent screenplay is well executed and complemented by the effective cast. But as in Rider, Country belongs to its female lead. Theron's accomplished performance is compelling and complex. Her Josey serves as a fine role model for anyone, not just women, to never back down from what's right and to never give up on their dreams. At times I found myself questioning why Josey would even consider a doing a job where women are not welcome. It's a complete credit to her strength and motivation to provide for her family that brings her back day after excruciating day.

If there's any fault to be found, Country does run a little too long and the courtroom scenes are a little too stagy and melodramatic. Knowing the film's outcome before it begins also deadens some of the dramatic punch. Yet, it doesn't take away from the important message of courage and self-reflection that Country asks us to consider. Country is thought provoking long after it's over.

Gray country.

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North Country Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2005

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