I always say I'm from Detroit, but I also lived in Northern Michigan. My family lived at the tippy-top of the mitten, yet still on the Lower Peninsula. We weren't "Yoopers," but I grew up fascinated by them. "Yooper" is slang for a person from the Upper Peninsula—someone from "the U-P," as it's more commonly pronounced with a heavy Finnish accent, like "Da' Yoo Pee." Every Yooper I've ever met was an uncommonly unique character—a real salt-of-the-earth townie, skilled at mechanics, deer hunting, and/or ice fishing. I don't know if it's because the Upper Peninsula is so isolated, sandwiched between Nowheresville, Canada, and Nowheresville, Michigan and Wisconsin, with nary a city for thousands of miles, or because of the ancestry of the original Swedish and Finnish people who settled up there in the snowy nothingness.
Northern Light isn't a documentary about the Upper Peninsula culture in itself. Instead, it's a humble and quietly thoughtful piece of cinéma vérité that follows three families who are connected to one another by their shared participation in an annual competitive snowmobile race (and never once does the word "Yooper" get uttered).
The directors shadow the families not only to the long and grueling 500-lap snowmobile race, but also to their respective jobs as truckers, Walmart clerks, and nursing home attendants. The camera captures them praying before dinner, going to birthday parties, sweating through cheerleading practice, having babies, and even, in one scene, competing in a female bodybuilding competition.
Northern Light seems to want to respectfully elevate, honor, and "make an honest woman outta" the slower-paced life of all people who live and die in small towns. The snowmobiling scenes seem secondary, but still remind you that quality of life depends on getting out in the world—even if your world is a frigid 22 degrees below zero, and your hobby is going 100 miles an hour around an ice track on a frozen lake. Staying active means staying alive.
"I just needed something," says the young wife of one of the snowmobile champs, as she wipes fake tan makeup from a shoe after a bodybuilding match. And in a small town, sometimes you need a whole lot less to make you happy.