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North Country

A True Story That Rings True

Just like director Niki Caro's last feature, the widely acclaimed Whale Rider, North Country also focuses on a small, patriarchal community that is forever changed by a female facing insurmountable odds. Although, in this case, an 11-year old Maori girl is replaced with a thirty-something mother in northern Minnesota, it is met with the same impressive results.

North Country tells the true story of the first sexual harassment class action suit in the country. It's 1989 and Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is down-and-out. After leaving her abusive husband, she has no other choice but to return to the home of her old-school archconservative parents, Hank and Alice (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek, both of whom are excellent here), with her children in tow.

After she decides, with the encouragement of an old high school friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), to give up washing hair at a beauty parlor and try for a job as a miner at the Pearson Mines where she could earn up to six times as much, her father reacts with, "You wanna be a lesbian now?" Needless to say, he is not happy with the situation. Neither are the hundreds of other men who all work for Pearson, the largest employer in the area.

The women workers have to suffer a myriad of cruelties ranging from having dildos slipped into their lunch pails and insults smeared on the walls of their locker room in feces to getting manhandled and publicly demeaned. In one provocative scene, a port-o-potty is shaken and overturned by a group of men while one of the female workers is trapped inside resulting in humiliation of the most disgusting kind. Josey's main tormentor is Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner) who grabs at her at every chance. Fortunately Glory, her co-worker, friend and union rep, is one hell of a tough cookie, which is how she survives for as long as she does. However, when things finally reach their boiling point, Josey decides to take action and sues Pearson for sexual harassment. Woody Harrelson plays her lawyer, Bill White.

The case goes on to set a national precedent. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, occurring at the same time, put the events in the film into context; i.e. you realize just how backwards our country was, especially regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. Caro weaves the hearings into the story perfectly.

The camerawork is beautiful; she can make even smoke stacks and piles of iron ore look striking. Furthermore, the performances are all pitch perfect, right down to the accents. Each actor, from the headlining stars to those in minor roles, expresses their lines with a natural flare. It would have been very easy to make this into some saccharine, feel-good, small-town-girl-makes-good holiday movie, but Caro strays away from all that sentimental foolishness.

She opts to make a movie that rings true and doesn't fluctuate along a wave of a swelling, grandiose soundtrack. This is best demonstrated through a scene in which Josey's father makes a speech at a union meeting. In most cases, the violins would have been cued and the stage would have been set for a Kleenex moment while he made a long, manufactured speech that no one would ever really make. Instead, he delivers a faltering speech that resounds with authenticity and is, therefore, that much more striking.

North Country is the kind of movie you pay to go see in the theater and make sure not to miss. It is both rousing and entertaining. And, who knows, you just may learn something too.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars