Few sports look more eerie than snowmobile racing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The 2011 edition of the I-500 in Sault Ste. Marie — captured in the second half of filmmaker/cameraman Nick Bentgen’s alternately surprising and numbing observational documentary “Northern Light” — has a somewhat unholy look about it.
Taking place at night under the icy glare of big lights, something about this noisy race seems like a desperate dream, where teams of drivers grow fatigued and get injured roaring around a track for 500 laps.
Yet the race is a big deal for a lot of local people, including the two determined amateur drivers Bentgen makes the focus of his film.
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One is Walt Komarnizki, a long-haul trucker, and the other is Isaac Wolfgang, a tool-and-die shop worker. On the surface, a viewer might wonder what possesses these guys (who dedicate a large piece of every year readying for the I-500, sometimes losing income) and their loved ones to allow Bentgen to capture such private moments as arguments about money or a mom-to-be’s painful labor, or a tuned-out woman studying for her GRE.
It’s a little like Bruce Springsteen championing the hidden heroism within blue-collar ordinariness. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into compelling viewing. “Northern Light” can be monotonous.
More effective are Bentgen’s and film editor Yoonha Park’s moving bursts of pure cinematic discovery. A glimpse of hard rain on pebbles is a little miracle, while a lengthy shot of a snowmobile zooming in and out of the frame beneath a peeking sunset is absolutely thrilling.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org