True crime – be it a Netflix binge or podcast – is a genre beloved by many. The idea of solving a case; helping to piece together the past is endlessly appealing. But what happens when the crime that occurred did so close to home? So close, in fact, that your own sibling is implicated in a death. How do you piece that together? Can you do so objectively?

These are just some of the thoughts and motifs that appear throughout North by Current. Film maker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan hometown – population less than two thousand – in order to seek answers regarding the death of his infant niece. In doing so, he opens up about shared family trauma and realises along the way that they aren’t quite done piecing themselves back together just yet.

The documentary begins with shots of sweeping plains, buried in snow, emphasising the isolation of life in such a small town. There are shots of the small main street, a quaint set up that you thought only existed in the likes of Gilmore Girls. Country music tinkers lightly throughout the soundtrack. The town is dominated by sawmills and rivers, and you immediately get the sense that everyone knows everyone else’s business but that no one is willing to truly open up.

Minax plunges you straight into the heart of the issue. His sister, Jesse, and her husband, David, found their daughter, Kalla Jade, dead in her crib. She is pronounced to have died of a bleed on the brain, with both parents being questioned by CPS and the police with regards to suspected child abuse. David spends time in prison. Minax states that he initially set out to make a film about injustice, but upon exploring the full story, the narrative led him to other places in his family’s past.

And it’s this past that is often seen on screen. Minax intersperses talking heads and landscapes with home videos and pictures. He asks questions about how your early years can change or form who you’re meant to be as an adult. The decisions you made; the friends you hung out with … It all adds up. The conflict between past and present is clear in almost every member of the family. This is a film less about a potential miscarriage of justice and more about a family confronting various traumas.

It’s perhaps these different narrative strands that prevent North by Current from ever truly plucking at the heart strings. There is simply too much going on here, meaning that nothing can really ever be explored beyond surface level. At times, it feels disjointed and the constant flashbacks or filler shots pull you right out of what’s going on in the present.

The past is clearly important here – not least the element of Angelo’s transition from female to male. It still impacts his devoutly Mormon parents, who equate the death of Kalla Jade wit the “death” of their own daughter. But this narrative strand, combined with the loose investigation into Kalla Jade’s last weeks and days, is too big to simply be a sub-plot. They don’t quite gel together, leaving you feeling like there are two – very personal – films here, each fighting for top billing. Perhaps there is even an argument that Minax is too close to the film’s subjects, rendering him unable to provide an objective narrative.

* minor spoilers in this paragraph * There is also the issue of the voiceover. It’s the voice of a sweet little girl, uttering profundities such as “In this world, there is no escape from pain nor body; time nor death.” It’s revealed, later on, that Minax is using this device as a way of giving Kalla Jade a voice. It feels – in the context of her still unresolved, rather brutal death – more than a little distasteful.

North by Current deals with some really hard-hitting issues. There are questions about religion and transgender identity; family trauma; addiction; how we deal with grief; domestic abuse. All of these issues could take up an entire documentary in their own right, they are so complex. However, in this case we have all of them squeezed into one ninety minute run time. Each issue is only given surface level treatment – there is no time to breathe before you’re on to the next thing. Minax also holds back a couple of pretty big reveals until the last twenty minutes or so, giving you not a lot of time to take it all in and form some feelings.

There is a good film in here, it just gets a little lost along the road back home.

Rating: ½

North by Current to have national broadcast and streaming debut on PBS television series POV & PBS.org on Monday, Nov 1, 2021