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MOVIE REVIEW

Lewis is lone bright spot in sluggish 'Aurora'

In ``Aurora Borealis," an unremarkable comedy-drama set in Minneapolis, Joshua Jackson plays Duncan Shorter, one of those lost slackers who's not even 30 and is nursing a very trendy starter mid life crisis. (Presumably, Zach Braff was elsewhere on assignment.)

Duncan can't hold a menial job. He can't pursue higher education. All he wants to do is play hockey with his grade-school buddies and watch the Vikings. He does manage to make time to visit his ailing, suicidal grandfather (poor Donald Sutherland), but Duncan is so impatient with him and his grandmother (Louise Fletcher) that you wish he had stayed away.

But how else would he have met Juliette Lewis , who plays Kate, gramps' home-care nurse? She's an itinerant but goal-oriented free spirit with crack timing and a tolerance for Duncan's mood swings and misanthropy that should earn her candidacy for sainthood. Obviously, Kate will try to make him grow up, to see that college isn't a dumb idea, and to discover that the world is bigger than the Twin Cities.

Written by Brent Boyd and directed by James Burke, ``Aurora Borealis" is, indeed, ``Good Will Hunting" but in the Midwest and minus the tortured math genius, psychological breakthroughs, and convincing local color. The Minnie Driver part goes to Lewis, and when she isn't on screen, the movie is a depressed slog. The dialogue comes out so naturally that you can't believe she ever saw a script. Even when she's just spooning with Jackson in a car, you sense from her dreamy intonation that she's been on a great adventure.

What happened to Lewis, anyway? In ``Cape Fear" and ``Husbands and Wives," she created some of the most viscerally complicated female adolescents in the history of American movies. Then she spent the rest of the early 1990s with a monopoly on dim and crazy -- ``Kalifornia," ``Natural Born Killers," that Melissa Etheridge video where she beat herself up in a big white room. There was nowhere else to go, it seemed, but back to normal -- a funny stint, say, as a talking head on VH-1's ``I Love the '80s" series. Lately, she's refashioned herself as a love interest -- she's too old for the teenage wasteland. So there she was gamely flirty with Luke Wilson in ``Old School" and here she is now propping up a wishy-washy Jackson.

Her demotion to the movie-girlfriend rank and file (she's so not Amy Smart) illustrates, in part, how the movies have lost their nerve. Lewis is still an intensely risky, naturalistic performer. A cool, unpredictable glint still lights her eyes, and her energy (sexual, intelligent, human) remains contagious. It's like she's still waiting for something amazing to happen. Where on earth is the filmmaker smart enough to meet this woman's expectations?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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