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All the Wilderness

D: Michael Johnson / 76m

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Danny DeVito

Following the death of his father, James Charm (Smit-McPhee) has become emotionally isolated and withdrawn. While his mother, Abigail (Madsen) relies increasingly on extra glasses of wine to cope with her loss, James takes to roaming the nearby woods and sketching the dead animals and insects that he finds there. He attends therapy sessions with Dr Pembry (DeVito) but is largely uncommunicative when it comes to talking about his father. Before a session, James meets Val (Fuhrman); there’s an immediate connection, one that’s cemented when she catches him sneaking out during the session. As he heads home he sees a young man (Ross) playing an abandoned piano in an alleyway.

Later on he bumps into the young man while on a bus. The young man’s name is Harmon, and along with a friend, he invites James to tag along with him for the night. At a food area, James finds Val selling doughnuts out of a van. They have an awkward exchange but Val is pleased to see him. Harmon then takes James to a party, afterwards they head back to Harmon’s place where James smokes his first weed and, unwittingly, begins to open up about his problems. The next night he goes back to the food area and sees Val again. She writes an address on his palm and tells him to meet her there the next day.

Feeling unsure about their burgeoning relationship, James meets Val and they head out of the city to a lake where they spend time getting to know each other. Back in the city they meet up with Harmon at another party. But James witnesses Val and Harmon kissing and he leaves. At his next therapy session, Dr Pembry challenges James as to why he sees him. When he tells James he thinks it’s because he feels guilty for not being able to support his mother, and that he should just get on with life, James begins to see things differently. He confronts Harmon and patches things up with Val before heading home to speak to his mother and revealing something about his father’s death that nobody else knows.

All the Wilderness - scene

A lyrical coming of age tale from first-time writer/director Johnson, All the Wilderness is a slow, mood- rather than plot-driven movie that has a strong visual flair and does its best to be different in a genre with (perhaps) too many antecedents. Taking the basic idea of a teenager torn between clinging to his father’s memory (albeit in an unusual way) and finding a way out of his grief, the movie covers mostly typical territory, but thanks to a good central performance by Smit-McPhee, never seems forced or too over familiar.

James is initially an intriguing character, though his obsession with recording – and predicting – death does seem a little heavy-handed, especially when you add his fondness for Chopin into the mix, as well as his choice of reading material, Moby Dick. But Johnson’s script is smart enough to introduce these embellishments and then not play on them too much except to provide some occasional flashes of humour later on. As we get to know him, James’ uncertainty and social awkwardness gives way, and we see someone taking their first tentative steps in growing up. Again, the script does a good job in balancing the difficulties of dealing with grief and the need to leave it behind, and as James begins to do so, Smit-McPhee’s physicality and demeanour become more confident, and his emotions fall into place, allowing him to realise that the wilderness his father spoke of – a slightly clumsy metaphor for life and death – is not something he has to be a part of.

While James isn’t particularly self-destructive, his relationship with his mother is tested by his going AWOL to see Harmon and Val, and though the ensuing confrontations between them feel perfunctory, and Madsen is required to step back almost throughout, it’s the actors approach to them that stops them from being entirely redundant. It’s the same with James and Val’s trip to the lake: they exchange personal information, mess around in the water, and establish a bond that, despite what happens between Val and Harmon, won’t be broken. It’s thanks to Smit-McPhee and Fuhrman that this fairly brief sequence works so well, and makes their later talk in the wake of that kiss all the more credible.

Johnson does make some mistakes though. Pembry’s “resolution/advice” comes at the end of approximately six months of sessions, and appears to be so simple (and obvious) that you have to wonder why it’s taken him so long to say it. And James’s reaction to it is also too expedient to be taken entirely seriously; all of a sudden he’s focused and determined and knows exactly what he needs to do. James also imagines hooded assailants chasing him through the streets, and while this idea adds some much needed energy to the movie, their appearance is never properly explained (and in one case seems designed only to get James on the bus where he properly meets Harmon).

Where the movie scores highly is in its look and feel, with DoP Adam Newport-Berra giving the viewer the sense of how James sees the world around him, with all its sights and sounds either slightly distorted or given heightened emphasis. There’s also a good use of space and lighting that makes some of the images seem more original in their framing and composition than you’d expect. And there’s a great mix of classical and indie music on the soundtrack too.

Rating: 7/10 – a solid debut by Johnson, All the Wilderness deals with themes of loss, fear and personal responsibility and, by and large, makes them seem fresh; but with too much that’s familiar, not every attempt to subvert the formula works, leading to a movie that works for the most part but not entirely.