Karl Jacob's deftly layered "Cold November" is a simple, quietly rewarding Minnesota wilderness story shot in and around the Iron Range town of Hibbing.
It doesn't dig into the local points of interest, like the 81-foot Iron Man statue celebrating miners or the Greyhound Museum that reminds everybody where the world's largest bus company started. It certainly doesn't treat its characters like roadside attractions, either. Jacob presents the area and its people as oft-overlooked and underappreciated. He reveals them in ways that are richly embroidered with character and small-town details.
Twelve-year-old Florence (effortlessly natural Bijou Abas) is a pure-hearted innocent, the sort who, if a priest in the confessional asked her to list her sins, couldn't come up with any. She's approaching childhood's end but isn't quite there yet. She plays with toy cars, aces her school tests, never swears and seems more comfortable in a lumberjack's plaid wool jacket than girlish styles.
The birthday present she looks forward to more than any is a good rifle. Florence, who got a perfect score in her firearms safety training, sees it as a tool she needs. Without it, she won't be able to join the family's get-together ritual of hunting deer and preserving the meat. It's a tradition the women of her matriarchal family revere, a rite of passage that teaches a deeper understanding of life and death. It's a lesson that hits important notes.
The trip by Florence and her mother, Amanda (Anna Klemp), to the woodsy old cabin of grandmother Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding) sets up the film's one-of-a-kind female perspective on hunting, which is usually portrayed as a strictly male custom. Once at the cabin, the trip is as much about renewing relationships with Florence's aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (writer/director Jacob) and a connection with nature as it is about pulling the trigger.
Eventually they all suit up in blaze orange (including their Minnesota Deer Hunters Association caps), grab their firearms, head into the deep woods, climb to the tree stand a dozen feet above the ground and look around the field for whitetails. While it's never melodramatic, there is a sense in those high-perspective scenes that death comes from above for more than deer.
The portraits here are subdued and modest, but not superficial. We learn about the loss of a beloved relative piece by gradual piece, through Florence's dreamlife and Mia sitting alone in a car at night to cry it out. Jacob frames the acting well, letting close-ups hold on these interesting people until it's time to move on.
Everyone in the ensemble delivers just-right performances, including Jacob, whose Craig is kind, caring and just a bit off. The film's standout star is Abas, who makes Florence intelligent but lacking much worldly wisdom. She's very effective as the story darkens when some of the party fail to keep their promises and Florence finds herself abandoned.
Hunting requires an ability to take a deep breath, stay calm and think hard as deer silently, suddenly appear. Florence matures over just a few days through that experience, and an unexpected transition to womanhood that the film handles with good taste and charming humor. There's a tone of matter-of-fact realism here that includes real deer being gutted and skinned, not the sort of thing the Humane Society favors, but a hard truth. It's as real as the scenes of the family sharing stories in the sauna, jumping into the near-freezing lake and howling in delighted agony.
That attention to life's detail is what makes "Cold November" one of those low-budget, come-out-of-nowhere films that is a good surprise.