It is not difficult to understand why acclaimed actor Colman Domingo has been named the Indy Shorts International Film Festival's Pioneering Spirit Award winner for this year's film festival running from June 19-24th at venues around Indy. An award honoring an individual whose work has embodied Heartland Film's mission, Domingo's entire filmography seems tailor made for such recognition with a career that has included such films as If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Lincoln, The Butler, Birth of a Nation, Candyman, and Zola among others. A Tony® Award nominee, two-time Independent Spirit Award nominee, two-time Emmy® Award nominee (including this year!), and recipient of a myriad of awards, Domingo's cinematic journey practically defines what it means to create a truly moving picture and how cinema can truly change the world.
It seems appropriate then that Domingo also arrives at Indy Shorts with two of the fest's finest short films, the animated short film New Moon which he wrote, directs, produces, and stars in and the live-action North Star which he also stars in and executive produced.
It's North Star that I'm writing about now, of course, and it's a film that left me, well, verklempt as Lily Tomlin would say. Both deeply moving and incredibly thought provoking, North Star tells the story of James (Domingo), a rural rancher whose husband Craig (Malcolm Gets) is dying of debilitating ailments not specifically defined yet undeniably causing his significant physical deterioration. As North Star progresses, it becomes readily apparent that Craig's illness has depleted the couple's resources yet their love is palpable and James's tender, steadfast care for his husband is evident in ways big and small. The intimacy of this care is portrayed realistically, perhaps jarringly so for some though it feels simply realistic for this paraplegic/double amputee, and there's never a single moment when we feel anything but the love that James and Craig have for one another whatever challenges their life encounters.
It is when Craig's sister Erin (Audrey Wasilewski) arrives that we feel the tension rise. It is obvious that she cares deeply for her brother, though she rejects his marriage, worries about his soul, and fails to see James as anything close to family. She seems practically capable of even eye contact with James. One can practically feel Craig's entire being twist and turn upon her arrival as she brings his medications, administers them, yet also turns his television to "He is Risen! With Owen and Jess," a televangelism broadcast that clearly condemns her brother and his husband.
We feel even more tension rise.
Over the course of the film's 30-minute running time, we learn more truths about just how precarious a position that James and Craig are in and the difficulty with which choices are being made both out of love and out of necessity.
North Star will play differently for different people. It's a film that tells an intimate story yet recognizes the world around that intimate story and understands how that world intimately impacts the lives of people just like James and Craig. It's a film that never feels less than heartbreakingly and exhilaratingly real in every moment.
Domingo is, quite simply, one of Hollywood's most underappreciated actors and he proves here once again how there's so very little that he can't do. Domingo possesses a rugged masculinity as James, yet he lives into the tenderness of a man deeply in love who is also living day in and day out in a caregiving role. It's a remarkable performance that never hits a false note and I found myself utterly astounded by how much Domingo surrendered himself to it.
With nary a word spoken, Malcolm Gets is simply extraordinary as Craig. In most ways, Craig is entirely physically dependent yet James practically demands his dignity be retained. Watching Gets as Craig is heartbreaking, yet watching him lean into and trust the care of his husband is truly the definition of intimacy. Quite simply, Gets is absolutely remarkable here.
It would be easy to dismiss Audrey Wasilewski's Erin has a caricature, a Christian more consumed by her own biases than by living like the Jesus that she believes in. She knows that she is called to love James, but she feels incapable of doing so and hides behind theology she doesn't completely understand. Yet, rather wisely, writer/director P.J. Palmer's script never demonizes her. It certainly doesn't excuse her, but it also never condemns her. As we watch the final encounter she has with Craig before she storms out of the house, all we can truly feel is sadness. Wasilewski is exceptional here and never even dances close to the caricature this character could have easily become.
A sudden appearance by Kevin Bacon could have easily gone awry here, yet Bacon is far too good of an actor to allow that to happen and Palmer's script gives him a brief yet meaningful scene in which to make an impact alongside the equally remarkable Laura Innes.
North Star is, quite simply, one of 2022's best live-action shorts with an exceptional ensemble cast matched by Ernesto Lomeli's magnificent lensing, Jon Altham's atmospheric and immersive original score, and the precise, patient editing by Josh Bodnar.
In a year in which Colman Domingo will be recognized with Indy Shorts's Pioneering Spirit Award, North Star is a dramatic reminder of Domingo's pioneering willingness to tell stories that demand to be told and to bring dignity and respect to the characters that he plays. If you've found yourself wondering why Domingo was chosen as this year's Pioneering Spirit Award winner, simply watch North Star.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic