Watching movies is a crap shoot most times, most of the time not knowing what to expect especially from a first time writer-director. So, I love it when a film sneaks up on you and catches you when you least expect it. All the Wilderness is one of those films.With a similar tone and feel as David Gordon Green‘s early good stuff like All the Real Girls and George Washington, this film takes on a post-coming of age story in a fresh and interesting way.
James (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) is a smart kid who has an obsession with death. He sketches dead animals and records vital dates and notes pertaining to their demise. Armed with what people believe is a sixth sense, he also predicts the deaths of animals and tries with people. When he slips a kid who is an asshole to him a note about his death, the kid beats his ass prompting what is obviously another in a long series of interventions by James’ mother Abigail (Virginia Madsen). Forced to go to a psychiatrist (played by a shockingly gray Danny DeVito), James is withholding about his feelings and why he does these things.
When he takes off in the middle of the appointment, he meets a man named Harmon (The Hunger Games‘ Evan Ross) who leads him into an underbelly of Portland, Oregon (where the film was shot), that James has never seen. Drugs, booze and unexpected camaraderie push James in a direction that could prove to be his savior or his undoing. We get the sense that James doesn’t have many friends and it’s easy to see why as he awkwardly tries to court Voodoo Donuts employee Val (another Hunger Games alum Isabelle Fuhrman), a girl he saw at his shrink’s office as well. All this angst and deviant behavior covers up something that has cut James deeply, something that is welling up inside him ready to burst. The slow build to the moment of confession is somewhat anti-climactic, but that really isn’t what the film was about. It’s about James’ journey, to discovery of who he is, how to get a handle on the things that have happened to him in his life and how to move forward without letting the weight of all of this hold him down.
I think what surprised me most about this movie is the way it was shot. Director Michael Johnson and his DP Adam Newport-Berra really employ the usage of handheld cameras, camera movement, and interesting settings to convey quite a bit about James’ mindset and feelings. I don’t think the film would have been as well served with more traditional camera angles and conventions using master shots and shot-reverse shots. The techniques used add layers to James’ character without using exposition in dialogue or corny sight gags. It’s a really fresh adoption of what Gordon Green used in his aforementioned films that really were his calling card up to when he started doing shitty stoner comedies.
I’m coming around on Kodi Smit-Mcphee. I thought his presence was a detriment to The Road and it was hard for me to abide Let Me In, one of the most egregiously bad remakes of a foreign film (Let the Right One In) this century. However, I really engaged with his character David Portnoy in A Birder’s Guide to Everything (read my review here). He is a strong presence in this film and does an ample job carrying the film. Evan Ross is quite intriguing and added a nice touch of mystery to the film. His character (besides having one of the most badass names) kept you guessing – was he a guy who was somehow drawing James in to set him up for a fall, or were intentions sincere? That he was able to toe that line with great success is a worth a tip of the cap.
I really enjoyed this film, and unexpectedly so. It was a hit at this past year’s SXSW Film Festival and I can certainly see why. This film opens on Friday, February 20, in theaters and on VOD. This is a story that, despite a short running-time of 85 minutes, will hook you and make you want to follow James on his journey. Get there, people.
Here’s the trailer: