Courage seems to skip a generation in Long Way North. The film's determined teenage heroine Sasha (Christa Théret) has always wanted to follow in the footsteps of her explorer grandfather, Oloukine (Féodor Atkine). He was the stoic and brave captain of a lost government expedition to the North Pole that has left a shameful mark on the family name. Sasha's socialite parents have political aspirations and would rather she lead the life of a debutante than dredge up past failures.
Set in 1882 Russia, this beautifully paced French-language animation values resiliency above all else. Director Rémi Chayé paints Sasha's quest as a series of choices between compromise and action, silence and bravery. Immediately before her first formal ball, new evidence is uncovered that Oloukine might have gone a different route than initially expected, giving hope that he and his crew might still be alive. Between waltzes Sasha tries to convince the Tsar's arrogant new science counselor to mount a new rescue mission. These pleas fall on deaf ears.
Once Sasha decides to leave the safe confines of St. Petersburg and head north to mount an odyssey of her own, Long Way North becomes a brazenly adventurous runaway story. But things don't come easy—her initial attempts to stowaway on a frigate are thwarted by bad luck and betrayal. This leaves Sasha stranded in a rural community with no money, lodging or clothing.
A salty innkeeper named Olga takes notice and gives her the opportunity to work as a barmaid, leading to the film's most important montage depicting Sasha's transition from delicate rich girl to agile service worker. It's more of a natural metamorphosis of spirit than a change in character. The newfound durability heeds her well once aboard a creaky ship with an all-male crew bound for the same icy waters Oloukine sailed years before.
Unlike many mainstream films about adolescence, Long Way North refuses to question Sasha's persistence. It's not abnormal that she feels more comfortable on the open water than in high-heels. Much of the film's conflict stems from the panic felt by scrupulous men who've momentarily lost their way. There are no standard villains to hate, just the danger of indecision and hubris punctuated by Mother Nature's fury. At the center of it all is a young woman who continues to improvise and problem solve (practically and scientifically) no matter the circumstances.
Like Sasha, Chayé's visuals are most in harmony with the horizon at their back. The film's breathtaking Artic imagery inspires respect and awe; massive ice blocks cascade downward toward a helpless vessel; windswept blankets of snow leave zero visibility; the titanic size of a polar bear makes humans seem like rag dolls. All of it reminds that those parlor games of politics and reputation are ultimately inconsequential.
Long Way North preaches that family legacy is something to cherish rather than admonish or forget. Sasha's fond childhood memories of Oloukine are not replaced by some somber new reality or fate. Instead, she learns to appreciate the ways in which these past experiences shaped her strong, confident personality in a world of so many weak-willed brutes.
Yet Chayé doesn't turn the story into forum for man hating. Speaking of his dirty cabin mates, one of the kind sailors Sasha befriends says, "They may smell bad but they are not bad guys." This shows a unique understanding of how daily pressures can mold perception and character over time, and that nobody's perfect.
In a year that's seen so much nasty rhetoric and vitriol, Long Way North, opening Friday Oct. 14 at Digital Gym Cinema, feels like a wise palette cleanser from a bygone era that reminds us how to lead a fulfilling life. The process of self-realization doesn't happen overnight, despite what social media and online participation promises you daily. Nothing can replace hard work. For those of us long unimpressed with Disney's simplistic brand ambassador Frozen, we finally have a wintry fable to champion.