Northern Lights: A Journey to Love is about Charlie (Piolo Pascual), whose nine-year-old son (also named Charlie, played by Raikko Mateo) is visiting him in Alaska for the very first time. Charlie hasn’t been in contact with his family in the Philippines for years, and has been satisfied living a bachelor’s life in Anchorage. Charlie isn’t exactly comfortable spending time with his son, especially when questions arise about why he hasn’t been to the Philippines to see him. He’d much rather get to know Angel (Yen Santos), the young woman who is renting out a room in his house, who got to know his the younger Charlie on the plane ride to Alaska.There’s a lot going on with these characters. The film plays coy for a while with the reasons why Charlie cut contact with his wife and his son. And Angel has her own little quest that is kept secret for a while. The film uses these secrets as a catalyst for the central romance, the relationship growing as these two characters come to confide their pain to each other. Because in the end, the film mainly seems to want to be a romance, even though it isn’t really the most interesting thing about this movie.The obvious merit of the film lies in its complex conception of family. Early on, a teacher character chides the younger Charlie’s classmates for being so perplexed about his family situation. And it might as well serve as the thesis statement of this movie: family is messy, and there’s no one way to do it right. Mothers and fathers leave. They disappear and become abstractions, these blank canvases on which children paint all manner of pictures. They become heroes or villains or whatever else, the void left in their absence fertile ground for a child’s imagination.And so the film tells a story of children in search of what’s been missing in their lives, only to be ultimately dissatisfied with what they find. In its best moments, the film touches on a profound disappointment that grows into a deeper appreciation of what these actually have. It is, for the most part, a pretty mature take on family. But then in the final stretch, it feels like the movie gets insecure about its own drama, and pushes too far into sentimental artifice. There is a big dramatic development that comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t land with the force that it really ought to.And in the final moments, the romance fully takes precedence. The film stuffs itself into a more conventional shape as it attempts to provide the familiar thrills of the more standard mainstream romance. It isn’t badly done, but it doesn’t feel wholly earned. The film is just so much better at other things that this particular sentiment just doesn’t hold. Piolo Pascual is credible as a man who struggles with being a father, but less convincing as an avowed lothario. There isn’t much connection these two sides of the character’s personality. Yen Santos is fine, and Raikko Mateo handles surprisingly deep material pretty well.Northern Lights: A Journey to Love has moments of compelling clarity when it lets things get messy. When it eschews the standard, overly contrived precepts of local mainstream cinema, it is able to portray something rather complicated and truthful. It tells a story of a world where love doesn’t always win out, parents disappear, and people aren’t always free to follow their hearts. And yet, people persist. The film really loses its way in the last stretch. It tries too hard to clean up the mess, and it cuts into the emotion that’s already been built. It doesn’t undo it completely, but it does feel like a few steps too far.
NORTHERN LIGHTS: A JOURNEY TO LOVE IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.