Studio: Mushroom Pictures
Director: Nicholas Verso
Writer: Nicholas Verso
Producer: John Molloy
Stars: Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath, Mitzi Ruhlmann, Justin Holborow, Terence Crawford, Trevor Jamieson
Surreal events on Halloween night compel two former friends to reflect on childhood choices that shaped who they became.
Corey and Jonah were inseparable as kids. Technically, they’re still kids, and in more ways than one at that.
But Corey transformed in step with classmates whose interests evolved from imaginary fantasies to more achievable ones like girls, partying, and becoming defiantly independent. Jonah fell behind to be beaten for the crime of being unable to break into the cool clique. Unwilling to sacrifice his own rising social status, Corey contentedly abandoned Jonah to regular abuse from the wolves.
With the last semester of high school on the horizon, the tumultuous transition into adulthood has everyone anxious, yet afraid to relinquish diminishing grasps on childhood. Thoughts, hopes, and fears of what comes next weigh heavily on the mind. All the while dreams big and small fight against hometown roots from which they may never have the fulfilled ambition to break free.
On Halloween night in 1997, circumstances reunite Corey and Jonah for a strange walk through their past, present, and future. At the edge of their journey are Jango, Jonah’s bully and Corey’s best friend, and Romany, the object of Corey’s affection. As their evening weaves between real life and waking dream, surreal events and half-remembered recollections challenge Corey and Jonah to reflect on the boys that they were, the men they are becoming, and the people they could have been.
Take the coming of age element from “Stand by Me,” dunk it in a “Donnie Darko” tone, and you’re partway toward getting a grip on the fairytale feel of “Boys in the Trees.” Australian writer/director Nicholas Verso uses crisp cinematic sights and needle drop sounds to paint a portrait of transitioning adolescence during the late 1990s, though its themes are in no way dated to the setting.
In this vein of dark, dreamy drama, feelings of fear stem from bittersweet sadness that comes with passing into adulthood. The stoners versus loner setup covers every maturation conundrum from indeterminate sexual orientation to malleable self-identities drifting in and out of uncertain social orbits. It’s hard to say for certain if the movie has a definitive message in mind or firm conclusion to make. Perhaps the idea is to merely echo confusion felt by any teen coming to terms with being left behind by a loved one, or being the person who left someone else behind.
Subtlety is not Verso’s strong suit, as the film works harder than necessary to establish its environment. A soundtrack overloaded with A-side cuts from Bush, Marilyn Manson, and The Presidents of the United States of America is so relentlessly ever-present, you half expect Kurt Loder to break in with an MTV News bulletin about President Clinton. Set dressing is similarly lacquered in a dozen coats of nostalgia ranging from Nirvana posters to dial-up internet loading screens. Everything is then framed in slow-motion sequences whose proportions outweigh their importance.
Characters are also archetypes of the most obvious classifications. Corey’s single father is a meek parental pushover, albeit well meaning. Jango’s alpha male intensity mixes a meaner Scut Farkus with a malicious Steve Stifler. Romany is an overlooked good girl convinced she can crack Corey’s bad boy shell (she literally, half-humorously identifies Corey as a sheep in wolf’s clothing given his fright mask Halloween costume).
Except the deeper reason why these personalities feel so familiar is because they represent people we know. Like it or not, they even mirror who we are, were, or have the potential to become.
Viewers will undoubtedly connect differently to the film depending upon age and station in life. Those currently unable to step far enough back for a reflection of personal introspection may not connect at all. But in this day and age where a two-word birthday greeting on Facebook counts as maintaining a friendship, “Boys in the Trees” keys into unfortunate truths about disposable relationships, and complicit roles played in creating effects we may never fully face.
The greatest spell cast by “Boys in the Trees” is in delivering an initial impression of being overly on the nose with melancholic metaphors. Yet by the time the film comes full circle, its quiet malaise morphs into a deeply affecting mood whose visual and emotional imprints cut sharply.
There’s much more to this movie that isn’t uncovered until its stylized theatrics are swept aside. In those haunting moments, touchstones are triggered that may have you on a similar wavelength of wonder regarding the hows, whys, and whos of those that have come into and then out of your life.
Review Score: 75