“North By Current” Chronicles a Trans Man’s Homecoming

In “North By Current,” out trans director Angelo Madsen Minax takes multiple trips back to his parents’ house in rural Michigan.
Angelo Madsen Minax

Before getting a brief theatrical run in New York, out trans director Angelo Madsen Minax’s “North by Current” already circled around several times. It aired on PBS last fall. But its appearance at Anthology Film Archives is a homecoming of sorts — one very fitting for this subject matter — since Minax is the co-programmer of the theater’s long-running trans-themed film series. “North by Current” details a much different return home.

In the wake of the death of his niece Kalla in 2011, Minax filmed several trips back to his parents’ house in rural Michigan. “North by Current” could’ve easily descended into the burgeoning world of true crime vultures, with Minax’s own troubled family serving as carrion. But it’s far more concerned with exploration than exploitation. It does not turn the experiences of Minax and his sister Jesse into a story with a start and ending.

At the start of “North by Current,” Minax is shown packing clothes in preparation for his trip to Michigan. The film also includes a brief scene of him driving there. Even at the very beginning, it pays careful attention to sound design and music selection. A wobbly, warped piano loop plays over home movies, while a heavy metal song with the line “I’m gonna save your soul, sister” soundtracks the ride home. His sister Jesse and her partner David were accused of child abuse in their daughter’s death, but the actual cause remains cloudy. Both Jesse and Angelo have struggled with addiction, although her problems seem more pressing over the last decade. In a Mormon household, Angelo’s parents found it hard to accept his trans identity, although his father says that trans men will be reborn with new genitalia in the afterlife.

The film relies greatly on voiceover narration, which it splits between Minax himself and Sigrid Harmon, credited as “the child.” Minax splits his ideas between two consciousness and two genders. “North by Current” seems influenced by theoretical writing about the concept of queer time. Nostalgia for the grain of VHS and Super-8 long ago became an empty aesthetic, but the past and present in this film are only distinguishable by the textures with which they’re shot. Minax fills “North by Current” with footage from his childhood, and this entire project could be viewed as an elaborate, sophisticated “home movie.”

“North by Current” flirts with the material of psychodrama, capturing moments in which Minax and his family confront each other with their most painful memories. His sister says that he abused her emotionally and physically as a child and blames this mistreatment for her later struggle with addiction. Minax asks his mother about the time she said that his being trans was God’s punishment for having an abortion.

All these scenes are placed in a much broader context. The film mixes footage from the family’s own archives, present-day shots of nature, and staged action (Minax admits to filming one scene in a diner), while the voiceover is usually disconnected from the images. It separates itself from linear time, creating a productive discontinuity. The Minax family’s life doesn’t fit neatly into a narrative: While driving, Jesse and Angelo’s mother wonders why she developed a drug problem when the rest of her social circle didn’t, and Jesse reminds her of the ubiquitous but random nature of addiction.

On the film’s website, Minax wrote, “One of my goals was to demonstrate the ways in which real life is dirty, unrelenting, and never wraps up nicely, contrary to what movies would have you believe… I do not want an audience to passively consume this film, but rather engage with it, deeply.” He points out its ellipses; for instance, the spectator never learns how Kalla died or what happened to Jesse’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend David. While this does come across an overly safe method of criticizing himself when Jesse accuses him of abuse, it doesn’t treat his life as material for exegesis to a distant, presumably cis observer. The avoidance of linear time and three-act storytelling defuse the tabloid potential of Minax’s material, finding new language to describe a trans man’s life.

“North by Current” | Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax | Grasshopper Film | Plays at Anthology Film Archives May 12th-16th