Set against the backdrop of Alaska’s harsh beauty comes this latest from John Sayles (writer, director, editor). Messages of unemployment from plant closings, tourist mania, depression and suicide are interspersed with the growing relationship between club-hopping singer Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and former fisherman, now handyman, Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn).

Mastrantonio does her own singing here and she sports a hearty country-western sound befitting any record label. She was a pleasure to listen to. Her character is that of a single mother who consistently chooses the wrong boyfriends, dragging her teen daughter from one club and boyfriend’s house to another. Neither are very happy. At the beginning of the film, she breaks up with her latest, a member of her band, but her steady gig at the Golden Nugget is secure for a few more weeks. She takes up with Joe, a kind of down on his luck handyman who has his own demons to occupy his time. Still, he’s the best thing she’s had in a long time and the relationship is genuine and loving. Daughter Noelle, meanwhile, is so unhappy that she takes to mutilating herself, unbeknownst to her mother.

A John Sayles’ film is always worth the effort it takes to see one. I say that because they aren’t always very accessible. But if you can’t find it playing near you, remember the name when rental time comes about. He’s one of the few independent producers who’s not afraid to take the necessary amount of time to develop the characters and the story line. So, you’d better like one or the other right from the start, because you’re going to be living with them a long time. He was the creator of “Lonestar”, a more interesting film, I thought, but I liked these characters here and the actors playing them.

In this case, after a long but smoothly flowing set-up, a mishap lands our characters on a remote Alaskan Island where the three of them must do everything they can to survive amid the brutal environment of cold, starvation and boredom. We knew Donna and Joe were strong, but here, Noelle comes into her own despite deep-seated fears and emotional problems. The pace gets a little bogged down but the kid’s character keeps it aloft.

One problem I have with this film is that Sayles was not faithful to Joe’s character at the end. Everything that leads up to it shows that Joe is a solid, knowledgeable, take charge man. He knows what to do and when. He gets them to safety and helps them survive for weeks on end. But then, Sayles places his character in his own kind of limbo just to satisfy a rather unique ending. I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.

But, I still liked the film overall, probably more so because I respect Sayles’ work.

Lotta says: Sayles’ films are intelligent experiences of character and story telling. Some like them; some won’t. Worth watching if you’re a step above the usual Hollywood fare.