Critic’s Pick

‘Geographies of Solitude’ Review: Exploring a Wild Island

Part nature film, part biographical portrait, this experimental documentary takes its cues from its setting, an island off mainland Nova Scotia.

In a scene from the documentary, a woman hikes an expansive field.
Zoe Lucas on Sable Island in the documentary “Geographies of Solitude.”Credit...Cinema Guild
Geographies of Solitude
NYT Critic's Pick
Directed by Jacquelyn Mills
Documentary
1h 43m

The closing credits of “Geographies of Solitude” say the film was made in collaboration with its subject, the naturalist Zoe Lucas. But the director, Jacquelyn Mills, might equally have called this experimental documentary — part nature film, part biographical portrait — a collaboration with the setting. Shot on Sable Island, a narrow, wild land strip 100 miles off mainland Nova Scotia, the film takes its cues from the scenery in unusually direct ways.

“Geographies of Solitude” is as concerned with the elements of the medium as it is with natural elements. Mills, who also served as the cinematographer and editor, incorporates vignettes that resemble the work of the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. We see film exposed in starlight and developed in seaweed, or hear music generated, with the help of electrodes, by the island’s Calosoma beetle.

Lucas, who first came to Sable Island in 1971, has spent decades thoroughly cataloging its horses, seals, birds and insects. She is heard in a voice-over clip talking about finding overlooked species. The island’s location also enables her to aid in tracking pollution in the Northwest Atlantic. Alarmingly, she says you can tell what holiday it is by the kinds of balloons that wash up.

Seemingly the island’s only human inhabitant, Lucas introduces Mills to the area’s life cycles, lifting part of a horse carcass to show insects feeding off it or explaining how even a small amount of litter can start the growth of a dune. Yet it is to the great credit of “Geographies of Solitude” that it never feels expository: It turns an ecology lesson, and an account of a noble, steadfast, single-minded pursuit, into art.

Geographies of Solitude
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.