“We were made to walk through fire in our dance shoes, We were made to sail upon the meteors. We were made to love the heck out of our bones. God gave us words, they were “I love you, please, and thank you”. God gave us thirst, and it’s a hunger for the universe.” ~From “To the Great Unknown” by Cloud Cult
My Aunt Marsha died when I was nine years old. When we got the phone call, I ran upstairs immediately to cry by myself. I didn’t know what else to do. My mom called up the stairs after me and said gently, “Joey, come down here. You don’t have to go upstairs. We need to be together right now.” My mom, my siblings and I all sat on the living room floor and cried together.
Cloud Cult’s The Seeker is a film that gently says, “We need to be together right now.” The Seeker is a film that brings people together from all corners of life to cry on the living room floor. In early 2016, the Duluth-based band Cloud Cult released their album The Seeker. It’s is a vibrant, complex meditation on death, loss, and hope, and has become an Armstrong family favorite. Now, Cloud Cult has made a movie, directed by Minnesota filmmaker Jeff D. Johnson and starring Josh Radnor from How I Met Your Mother and Alex McKenna from What Women Want. The film is the visual interpretation of all of the songs from The Seeker.
Cloud Cult was started by Minnesota couple Craig and Connie Minowa. The Minowas have been marrying visual art with spiritually charged, homegrown orchestral rock music for years. During their live shows, Craig and the band play the songs while Connie and artist Scott West paint. The Minowas are also no strangers to suffering and loss. Their early albums were raw and tragic meditations on the death of their infant son. In fact, their early music opens up such tender wounds within them that the Minowas have decided not to sell those particular albums or perform the songs any longer.
In the early days of 2016, my spouse and I purchased Cloud Cult’s album The Seeker and listened to it from start to finish numerous times. Songs like “To the Great Unknown,” “No Hell” and “Through the Ages” nail Craig Minowa’s primary point of leading the listener on life’s journey from birth to death to whatever happens after death. Craig, in an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, explains how he and Connie have been deeply impacted by the legends, stories, and spirituality of Native Americans. Death is not the final word for those who believe in spirit quest. Craig talks, boldly, about the contact he has experienced with his ancestors and how he sees a vibrant spirit life in everything. The Seeker album captures this well and reminds us that all of life, including death, is a mystery. The Minowas embrace the mystery and invite us to do the same.
The Seeker contains no discernible dialogue. It is motion (and emotion) set to the music of the album. The story, written by Craig Minowa, features a young couple that give birth to their first, and only, child. Her name is Grace and she is played by actresses Lillia Gray (as young Grace), Josie Axelson (as teenage Grace), and Alex McKenna (as adult Grace). Josh Radnor seems like an odd choice as the Father in this film. All I can see, at first, is Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother. But, surprisingly, Radnor who also produced the film, really embodies the life of Craig Minowa’s vision. Father and Mother (Amanda Day) are a young couple raising their fun and rambunctious daughter on a rural farm near Gooseberry Falls, MN. It is an idyllic life. I felt myself absorbed and wrapped up in the warm comfort of the images like that old quilt you keep near the couch.
Father takes Grace, who is about six years old, on her first big camping trip. They pitch their tent along the lake and Father presents his daughter with a toy boat that he carved out of wood for her. With glee, she accepts the gift and places it on the lake. The next morning, after reading stories around the campfire, the idyllic nature of their peaceful life is tragically interrupted by Father being struck by a truck as they wander down a dirt road together. We are led to believe that Father dies instantly.
The rest of the film follows Grace as she grows into a teenager and adult. She is sad and angry through much of the film. She smashes bottles of paint and weeps on the floor of her apartment. She embodies feelings of loneliness and unresolved anger and grief as she sits on the stoop smoking cigarettes. Adult Grace, evicted from her apartment, returns to the home where she was raised. With an old rowboat, she builds a life size replica of the toy Father had made for her. She sets out on Lake Superior in her boat and gets caught in a wicked storm. It isn’t until she makes it back to shore and runs through the weeds, does she encounter the spirit of Father. At least, it appears that this is what happens. Following this spiritual, life-like encounter with Father, Grace is transformed. She smiles. She laughs. The spiritual philosophy of the Minowas is made plain here. Father has been with Grace all along. He never really left. The film ends with the song “Through the Ages.” Craig Minowa sings, “I’m done being stupid and worried and dramatic, so I lay down my every disguise. So if ever I can’t see the magic around me, please take my hands off my eyes.”
The film is a tearjerker, but I will say this much about The Seeker: if you haven’t heard the album or if you aren’t someone who has experienced much suffering in your life, then you might not connect with the film.
To some, the film may feel like an extended music video and nothing more. To other, like my spouse, it may seem “depressing.” The message of Cloud Cult in all of their art, however, is as Krista Tippett says, traveling from “the rawest grief to the fiercest hope.” As someone who was raised in grief and loss and currently works as a spiritual and emotional healthcare professional in a community where grief and loss are paramount, the experience of viewing The Seeker spoke volumes to me. I found the film to capture well the motions and feelings associated with grief.
The Seeker is not a film to experience if you are looking for entertainment or simple leisure time. The Seeker, much like the album of the same name, is something to sit back and experience. It is as memorable and aesthetic an experience as a live Cloud Cult concert. It touches on all the pieces of our human experience that might need healing. In that way, it may not be a timeless piece of art and it may not last in the way that classic American films have lasted, but it is important. The Seeker is not a great film, but it is a great and memorable artistic experience and a tribute to the growing and vibrant community of arts in the great state of Minnesota.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.