Bruce Dern’s cantankerous coot in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and Geneviève Bujold’s dementia-stricken tough cookie in Canadian director Michael McGowan’s “Still Mine” (2012) seem made for each other. So when the two veteran actors team up in Vermont writer-director Jay Craven’s wry, uneven “Northern Borders,” adapted from Howard Frank Mosher’s novel, they mesh so well they almost hold the rest of the movie together. But their nuanced performances underscore the weakness of the rest of the cast, and Craven’s erratic tonal shifts from the whimsical to the sentimental trip up the episodic plot.
In 1956 at a train station in Kingdom County, Vermont, 10-year-old Austen Kittredge III (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) waits for his grandfather Austen Kittredge Sr. (Dern), whom he has never met. Fortunately, the creepy drunk who harasses him turns out not to be the old man he is waiting for, but the one who finally does show up is not much of an improvement. Grizzled and intimidating, the elder Kittredge is a man of few words, and none of them are cordial.
At the Kittredge farm, Austen’s wife, Abiah (Bujold), proves more welcoming, effusive, and peculiar. She and her husband of 50 years live in separate buildings, and hers she calls “Egypt.” For a reason that stretches credibility to the point of magical realism, she has an obsession with the land of the pharaohs. Figures of Thoth and Anubis and other ancient knickknacks decorate her bedroom and she instantly nicknames the young Austen “Tut.”
None of which fazes her grandson who — either because he inherited his grandfather’s laconicism or because any other response is out of Davey-Fitzpatrick’s acting range — adjusts to the situation with no difficulty except for mild annoyance. Why he is there emerges gradually and unemphatically, and as time passes much happens in between cuts that appear without explanation. Like, when did the kid learn how to drive a truck? And where did this aunt with the pistol come from? So life goes on, much like life usually does, as a series of disconnected incidents and crises and non-sequitur dialogue, though with oppressive musical accompaniment.
For the most part Craven edits these disparate, near-Dadaist bits together with a deadpan assurance. He pulls off with grace and style such not-by-chance encounters as that of a stick of dynamite and a can of peaches during the serving of a summons.
Other times, though, the dialogue sounds stilted and the whimsy is forced, especially when Dern or Bujold aren’t in the scene. The latter even succeeds at elevating from pretentiousness to eloquence a seemingly gratuitous quotation from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable”). The truths about companionship, time, and mortality to which “Borders” aspires loom just out of reach.