Carly Stone directs the strange but true story of a reluctant wild child

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

North of Normal
Coming Soon

Cea Sunrise Person’s 2014 Canadian best-seller North of Normal rode the popularity of the 2010’s “women in the wild” memoir trend (see also Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Aspen Matis’ Girl in the Woods) with its own spin on the genre.

The book tells Person’s story growing up in Alberta and the Yukon wilderness. The youngest member of a hippie commune led by her grandfather, Person had little to no supervision, even though she craved structure. She certainly didn’t get it from her mother Michelle, who was only 15 when she got pregnant. The combination of free love, drug use, and living off the land sparked Person’s reaction against the chaotic, free-living way of life.

Faced with a wide-ranging source material, the film adaptation zeroes in on Person’s relationship with her mom, specifically her teenage years when they reconnected in North Bay (Cea was left with her grandparents for six years as Michelle went through a string of boyfriends). It was Cea’s first time living in a city and a chance to reassess her mother with less forgiving eyes. She would grow up to become a model, a mother of three and an author.

The spot-on casting features two up-and-comers — River Price-Maenpaa and Amanda Fix — as Cea Person, with Sarah Gadon (who can somehow believably pass as both 15 and 30 years old) as Michelle and Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle as the larger-than-life grandfather.

Toronto filmmaker Carly Stone (The New Romantic) read “North of Normal” in one sitting and related to Person’s indomitable spirit. However, upon giving birth to her first child, Stone started feeling more empathy for Michelle. While a writer in her own right (she wrote four Kim’s Convenience episodes and was a story editor in seasons two and three), she asked her friend Alexandra Weir to handle the script.

I recently spoke with Stone about North of Normal.

Some of the people portrayed in the film are still alive. Did that affect the way you approached the material?

Cea was the main source and she gave us the freedom to explore creatively. We were always cognizant of maintaining the essence of her memoirs. I know that Cea now has a very close relationship with her father, who doesn’t appear much in the first book. We also had to decide which of her mom’s boyfriends to keep. I like to approach characters empathetically, so no one is fully good or villainous.

Was there any aspect of the book you wish you had the chance to explore further?

Because we made the movie during COVID, a lot of the budget had to go to precautions like housing actors for their quarantine. I wish I could had built the world of the ’80s in a bigger way. But at the same time, because of those restrictions we shot a really focused, intimate film which I love.

As we learn from the book and the movie, Cea was a vulnerable child who grew up to become a successful, well-adjusted adult. Considering her experience, how do you feel now about sheltering your children?

I’m pro-sheltering children, but I also believe in giving them the information they need. My son is only four and asks about death a lot. I try give him the facts instead of telling him not to worry about it. As it relates to the movie, I can see how Cea could have used a little more sheltering. ■