The miracle of Rian Johnson’s Brick is its ability to be completely ostentatious about its narrative stratagem (remixing Raymond Chandler via The Breakfast Club) while absolutely selling you on its alien landscape approach to teen drama. Dead bodies are investigated after sixth period, while hard-boiled Vice Principals interrogate a minor Philip Marlowe under threat of suspension. The combination of Johnson’s rhythmic, punchy dialogue and the actors’ adroit commitment to fulfilling his Hammett-aping vision birthed a strange classic for weirdo theater kids who wanted to shoot their own experimental genre shorts on the weekend. It’s hyper-literate pop noir, and we haven’t really seen anything quite like it since.
To be fair, not many directors have tried, but Go North feels as if it's taking the general template of Johnson’s beguiling mystery and re-working it into a self-serious post apocalyptic “walking dead” picture. There aren’t any zombies to speak of, except for the children who now populate the planet. Some sort of half-remembered incident (relayed during blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashbacks) occurred and wiped out all adults, leaving a gaggle of pre- and teens to fend for themselves and create their own societal codes sans supervision. Director Matthew Ogens (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kyle Lierman) has crafted a Lord of the Flies riff writ large, where the children still attend class at a deserted high school, pledging allegiance to today because there is no guarantee of a tomorrow. Religion is outlawed. Judgement is doled out by letterman-jacket sporting upper classmen, who double as parental figures for the smaller members of this newly forged juvenile culture. Failure to comply results in a long walk down a dark tunnel; exile into the great big unknown, where lonely expiry surely awaits.
Ogens wisely keeps the conflicts contained to the Detroit youngsters’ recollections of a culture they once lost. Boys and girls crush on one another in the halls, while the jocks band together, hoping to keep some semblance of a caste system intact. Josh (Jacob Lofland) is our guide, allowing us to peruse this barely sketched arena of raging hormones while pining for Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark), the little sister of big man on campus, Caleb (Patrick Schwarzenegger). When one of Caleb’s key cronies (James Bloor) makes unwanted advances toward Jessie, Josh defends her and is immediately targeted for retaliation. Now the two potential lovebirds must flee from this ersatz establishment, with sneering jocks in hot pursuit. It’s all a fairly rote insertion of ‘bullying’ imagery into a post apocalyptic mold; the cool kids wanting to keep their status (not to mention possess the women they believe they ‘deserve’) through sheer force, while the meeker students are affected and take action only after being pushed too far. Unfortunately, Ogens dials back both his character development and dialogue (which are both respectively functional and never stylized enough to stand out), while playing the genre elements entirely too safe. His movie’s mean spiritedly obvious, and lacks any sort of overt artistic gumption.
Despite the whole being rather limp, there’s something rather exceptional about Greg Kuehn’s score, which manufactures a close, creeping tension via its Goblin-sounding percussive rattling. When the expected synths drop in, they’re not another Carpenter emulation (which many young genre filmmakers have fetishized to an absurd level), but rather an almost Reznor-esque, industrial tinged electronic grinding that’s ominous and driving. The movie leans on Kuehn like a crutch when the proceedings dip into dullness, allowing his simple yet intriguing arrangements do a fair share of the heavy lifting. Sadly, the characters and scenarios are so thinly drawn that all we have to cling to are some ethereal visuals from cinematographer John Tipton, while the tunes burrow beneath the imagery. The discordant nature of the soundtrack may actually highlight the movie’s crippling flaw: a refusal to commit and congeal into a cohesive aesthetic that carves an intriguing path through familiar territory. Unlike Brick, which was unafraid of its own ambitions and embraced that which could be completely ludicrous and distracting, Go North only seems willing to rely on the familiar, while hoping the broad metaphor will stand in place for any sort of forward thinking design. In short, it’s just another YA paperback on the shelf, hoping you’ll be bored one day and not want to re-read its distinctive detective story predecessor for the seventeenth time.
Go North is available to stream now.