As the two teenage leads of Matthew Ogens’ film, Go North, meandered through the woods of near-future Detroit, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. It wasn’t that what I was watching was necessarily derivate of any one film, but the feeling lingered that I had seen these two characters many times before, walking the same path I saw on-screen. This lack of identity and specificity is what ultimately sinks Go North, though there are a whole host of issues that keep this post-apocalyptic indie from becoming genuinely engaging.
Go North is set in a world where everyone past their early 20s have mysteriously died off. The children of this world have banded together and left their cozy, intact suburban homes for the disheveled, abandoned ones around the outskirts of Detroit. They still go to school, but now the classes are taught by college kids espousing the merits of hunting and finding drinking water. They live by a strict code which is only enforced when it benefits one of the older, letterman jacket-wearing jocks. This is about as far as the film goes in terms of discussing the makeshift caste system that reigns supreme in this culture. Don’t expect anything Lord of the Flies-esque, because you won’t find it.
The lead character, Josh (Jacob Lofland), finds himself pining for the only girl the film puts focus on, Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark). He steals looks at her during class and even tries to fend off unwanted advances on her from upper classmen. Problem is, Jessie is the little sister of the town’s big guy on campus, Caleb (Patrick Schwarzenegger). His cronies torment Josh and Jessie to the point that they leave the safety of the group to venture out and find something better.
If this strikes you as some kind of Hunger Games-light YA knock-off, you’d be half right. Problem is, Go North doesn’t seem to know who its audience is at all. It’s got too many f-bombs and references to sexual abuse for it to be a kids film, but it’s far too simplistic and threadbare a premise to qualify as adult entertainment. This world never feels even somewhat convincing. While the dilapidated outskirts of Detroit are a great setting, everything from the Urban Outfitters aesthetic of the clothing to the baffling ruin of the kids’ houses feels cloying. We never really get to learn the ins and outs of how society functions now, and when we do, the scenes are cut short of any insightful detail. Instead, it falls into a precarious middle ground where the story and characters will really have to push through the tonal problems. That doesn’t happen here.
The most damning thing about Go North is that the characters are barely more than cardboard cutouts. Josh and Jessie are utterly without internal life beyond “we have to go somewhere because bad people are coming!” Their few moments of bonding feel rote and are full of clichéd, “What would you do if you could go back to the way things were?” hypotheticals. There’s nothing there to get invested in besides the fact that they are two kids in a bad situation. The only villain that registers at all is Gentry (James Bloor), who is given little to do other than mug his villainy at the camera. It’s not even until the end that it becomes clear just how much of a threat he is, which makes the lack of tension throughout feel even more disappointing.
In a genre so oversaturated, post-apocalyptic stories need a sense of personality to stand out. Something that The Hunger Games, Mad Max Fury Road and other stories of this genre have is that they all feel specific and the world building is very well established. Neither of these qualifications are met at all in Go North. There is clearly talent here. Lofland, Clark and Bloor are all good enough that I could have seen them shining with a bit more to work with. However, this is a case where an instinct for artful minimalism took too strong ahold of the entire project. There’s not enough here to make anything stick, and, much like the lead characters on their journey, I found myself struggling to make it through to the end.