Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Superior: A Cinematic Journey Through the U.P.

Director Edd Benda's first feature film, Superior, opens in Calumet, Michigan, in 1969. With two weeks left in the summer, Charlie and Derek face certain futures. Charlie (Thatcher Robinson) will attend Michigan Tech University and study engineering, while Derek (Paul Stanko) will end up in Vietnam.

Although adulthood should be near, it is as far away and foreign as a distant shore. Charlie and Derek face a choice: They can stand still in their hometown awaiting their fates, or they can have one last adventure and determine their own destinies.

Charlie and Derek choose the latter and embark on a 1,300-mile bike ride around Lake Superior with little more than a few dollars, sleeping bags, one copy of Jules Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, the shirts on their backs, and shorts that were not made for biking 5 miles.

Although the film is set in 1969, it, like any good period piece, depicts characters whose emotions and desires are timeless. Except for Vietnam casting its shadow over Derek's future, the relationship between Charlie and Derek could happen at any point in history. Like any longtime friends, they measure themselves against each other and challenge each other. They ultimately need to accept that, although close friends, they face different futures.

While traveling through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Minnesota, and Canada, Charlie and Derek encounter a few interesting characters (including a few overly stereotypical Minnesotans). Although a funeral director and crazy recluse add comedy to the duo's adventure, the best moments in the film are when Charlie and Derek are alone on screen. Their dialogue uncovers their hopes and fears, and the friendship feels real through the film's unspoken moments, such as the creative way they share Verne's novel or goof off on a beach.

Although Superior is a coming-of-age story and a buddy film, it is also Benda's homage to the U.P. and the largest of the Great Lakes. Benda grew up in several places but spent a good amount of his childhood, including his high school years, in Michigan. He filmed the movie in the U.P.'s Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost part of the U.P. that juts into Lake Superior. The story is inspired by his Uncle Karl's own trip around Lake Superior with a friend in 1971. The bikes used in the film are the same ones that his uncle and his uncle's friend rode.

Superior's cinematography (courtesy of director of photography Alex Bell) captures the beauty of Lake Superior and the U.P. A scene of Charlie and Derek skipping rocks over the lake's crystal-clear waters will feel familiar to anyone who has stood on a Lake Superior beach and marveled at the vast expanse of water. When Charlie and Derek are riding quietly on tree-lined roads and paths, the magnificent silence of the U.P. comes to life. The land is populated by majestic trees. Civilization is absent, but wilderness abounds. It is the perfect place to escape from the world and to find oneself in the process.

Superior is a solid first film for Benda. It feels like the start of a great adventure, and here's to hoping Benda takes us along for the ride.

For more information about Superior and Benda and Bell's production company, Beyond the Porch Productions, visit

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