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Viewer Guide: North Country and Stronger

March 12, 2021 | Richard Peña


North Country (2005)

This week’s classic is North Country, a 2005 drama directed by Niki Caro.

Based on a true story and set in 1989, North Country stars Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, a Minnesota woman whose abusive marriage has finally reached its inevitable end. With nowhere else to go, Josey travels back north to her parents Hank and Alice, played by Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek. ]Josey’s homecoming, however, is as cold as the winter landscape, with her father in particular ashamed of Josey’s supposedly promiscuous past, a bad reputation that stems from her inability to say who fathered her adolescent son Sammy. Desperate to finally take care of her son and younger daughter on her own, Josey is at the end of her rope…until she has a chance encounter her old friend Glory Dodge, played by Frances McDormand. Learning of Glory’s good-paying job as a truck driver for the fictitious Pearson Mine, Josey decides to try her luck with getting hired, despite knowing that the mine’s longtime prohibition against employing women has only recently ended, with many in the male dominated work force—including Josey’s father—remaining hostile to any woman who “takes away their job.” But nothing can prepare Josey for the brutal harassment she experiences, particularly when its primary source is her ex-high school boyfriend Bobby Sharp, played by Jeremy Renner. But when Josey tries to fight the abuse that she and the other women workers encounter on a daily basis, not only does she hit a wall of fierce resistance, but she is also forced to face the crime that changed the course of her life so many years before.

Also featured are Woody Harrelson as a sympathetic lawyer, Michelle Monaghan as another brutalized Pearson worker, Corey Stoll as an ineffectual union foreman, and Sean Bean as Glory’s husband Kyle.

North Country was based on the true story of Lois Jenson, who began working for the EVTAC Mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, in 1975. But unlike the compressed timeline of events dramatized in the film, Jenson’s class-action suit for sexual harassment—astonishingly, the first case of its kind in America—resulted in five trials over several years before an out of court settlement of $3.5 million was reached in 1998. To prepare for her role, Charlize Theron drew on her own family’s blue collar origins in her native South Africa, and also spent time with EVTAC’s women miners. The hostile union meeting scene was reportedly filmed with actual miners and without rehearsal, prompting Theron to later comment it was the most challenging scene of her acting career. Hailing from New Zealand, director Niki Caro achieved her breakthrough success with Whale Rider, which garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination for its young star Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2004, the same year Charlize Theron won for her revelatory performance in Monster. For North Country, both Theron and Frances McDormand received Best Actress and Supporting Actress nominations for their compelling performances in the film.


Stronger (2017)

Tonight’s indie is Stronger, a 2017 biographical drama about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, directed by David Gordon Green.

Adapted from Jeff Bauman’s 2014 memoir, Stronger stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman, an affable “regular guy” working at a Boston-area Costco and living with his mother Patty, played by Miranda Richardson. Jeff is somewhat adrift after a recent breakup with his girlfriend Erin, played by Tatiana Maslany, who had ended their relationship after becoming disillusioned with Jeff’s seeming inability to commit to building a future together. But when Jeff re-encounters Erin at a local bar, he’s struck by her dedication to run in the Boston Marathon as a fundraiser for the hospital where she works. Jeff spontaneously decides to help Erin secure more pledges, and promises to be waiting for her at the marathon’s Boylston Street finish line. True to his word, on April 15, 2013, Jeff is in the crowd of well-wishers cheering the runners on…when out of the corner of his eye, he notices something strange about a solitary figure in the commotion. In an instant, Jeff’s life is changed forever, losing both his legs in the terrorist bomb attack that would kill three people and injure some 260 others. But beyond his grueling recovery and traumatic adjustment to coping with his disability, Jeff discovers the biggest challenge is in learning how to break through his psychological isolation and become the actual hero that everyone wants to believe he already is.

Jeff Bauman’s compelling story first captured national attention with a riveting news photograph that powerfully conveyed the utter horror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. To prepare for his performance, Jake Gyllenhaal spent considerable time bonding with Bauman, with the pair forming a warm friendship that greatly enriched Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance. Director David Gordon Green’s convincing recreation of Bauman’s story even extended to casting some of Bauman’s actual medical team in their real-life roles, including the Martino brothers who created Bauman’s prosthetic legs. Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley’s daughter Nora was born in July 2014. Eventually returning to his job at the Costco deli counter, Bauman also went back to school to study engineering.

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