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The Cold Lands: Berlin Review

The Cold Lands - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Tenderhearted coming-of-ager succumbs to lethargy and preachiness.

Venue

Berlin Film Festival (Generation)

Writer-Director

Tom Gilroy

Cast

Lili Taylor, Silas Yelich, Peter Scanavino

Lili Taylor co-stars in writer-director Tom Gilroy's sophomore feature, which premiered in Berlin's Generation section.

BERLIN -- An earnest attempt at backwoods realism that’s bogged down by a sluggish narrative and a nagging self-righteousness, writer-director Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands follows the hard-knocks adventures of a tweenage boy forced to fend for himself when his mother suddenly dies. Featuring an underused Lili Taylor and an undernourished lead performance from newcomer Silas Yelich, this well shot rural drama will find its warmest reception in mid-level fests and scattered VOD outlets.

An opening monolog, about a battle in the 1840s Anti-Rent War that took place nearby the film’s Upstate New York setting, offers a glimpse of some of the rather didactic storytelling that follows. The conflict -- part of a revolt by tenant farmers against their exploitive landowners -- is explained by single mom, Nicole (Taylor) to her son, Atticus (Yelich), and she goes on for much of the first act advocating the merits of such a life of resistance: resistance to television, videogames, neighbors, electricity (at least at night) and apparently, professional medical assistance.

Given the fact that Nicole has a severe form of diabetes, the latter seems to be a poor choice on her part, and when she suddenly succumbs one evening on the couch, Atticus is left to his own devices. Yet, rather than trying to contact his dad or perhaps a distant relative (he seems to to have neither), Atticus runs off into the forest, hiding from the police and encountering…his mom’s ghost, in one particularly corny sequence.

Eventually, he crosses paths with Carter (Peter Scanavino), a weed-puffing wayfarer who takes the young runaway under his wing, teaching him how to make wire necklaces that they pawn together at a local reggae fest. Although their encounter somewhat livens up the pace, Carter isn’t much more than a male extension of Atticus’ mother, rambling on about the “global economic situation” while sleeping in the buff in abandoned houses.

Is everyone in the Hudson Valley a holier-than-thou crusty? Obviously not, but one of the major pitfalls of Gilroy’s script is to have its young hero surrounded by them, never really giving him the chance to formulate his own worldview -- even if he seems, at least in one sequence, to be interested in another kind of lifestyle.

The fact that much of the dialog is pronounced in a semi-listless tone doesn’t help matters, and although Yelich has an endearing, at times moving presence, his low-energy register makes Atticus more of a cipher than a fully formed (or forming) individual. Scanavino adds some depth and humor to the proceedings, while Taylor is only half convincing as a cabin-bound rebel who prefers vintage clothes and candlelit rooms.

Beautifully photographed (by D.P. Wyatt Garfield) and making fine use of its bucolic surroundings, the low budget production was mounted by Cinereach, one of the producers of Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance smash, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Although the two films are worlds apart aesthetically, they both deal with kids coming of age upon the death of parents who refused proper medical care -- parents who also engaged in what could be deemed a highly questionable form of child rearing.

Like Beasts, Lands also seems hell-bent on pounding notions of independence and self-reliance into the mind of its budding protagonist. But what are such freedoms worth when the characters, and the viewer for the matter, are hardly given the freedom to think for themselves?

 

Production companies: Cinereach

Cast: Lili Taylor, Silas Yelich, Peter Scanavino

Director, screenwriter: Tom Gilroy

Producers: Paul Mezey, Andrew Goldman

Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield

Production designer: Sara K White

Music: Hahn Rowe

Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best

Editor: Julia Bloch

Sales Agent: Cinereach

No rating, 110 minutes