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Like many a movie character before him, the central figure of In the Treetops lusts after someone just out of reach while the Right One stands before him. Writer-director Matthew Brown, who also stars in this engagingly low-key debut feature, explores that angle with an offhand intensity, and not as the impetus for rom-com laughs.
His intimate group portrait, modestly scaled and fueled by a loose-limbed extemporaneous energy, follows five high school friends on a long winter night of aimless driving and dawning realizations. The movie, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, was shot in Winston-Salem, NC, with a cast and crew of first-timers, mostly students and alumni of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
The woodsy suburban setting comes through in cinematographer Donald R. Monroe’s sensitive night shooting, while Brown’s screenplay looks beneath the tranquil atmosphere, illuminating the emotional scars and home-front challenges that some of the characters face.
For the motley teen crew packed into the utilitarian sedan of de facto group leader William (Brown), their nighttime world is self-contained. Parents and other adults are referred to but never seen during hours marked by lawn-Santa vandalism, parking-lot Frisbee and heart-to-heart conversations.
Their half-stated reasons range from missing keys to potential parental freak-outs, but William and his friends are united in their determination to be anywhere but home. The one exception is a ritual stop at the home of Eric (Gabriel Douglas), where they strip down to their underwear and soak in the hot tub.
By this point the usual quartet, which also includes the perennially short-on-cash Gary (Joshua Pagan) and Alissa — the smart, lovely and good-natured brunt of Williams’ jerky put-downs, played by the especially compelling Emma Corley Geer — has been joined unexpectedly by William’s standoffish dream girl, Alexa (Cameron Morton).
The tone of the night shifts with the news, received by text message, of a deadly crash involving someone who William used to be close to. He keeps the impact of the news at arm’s length, much like his feelings for Alissa, the pal he pretends to take for granted. But in Brown’s performance and Monroe’s attentive close-ups, we can see the dark event working on him in ways that he can’t yet acknowledge.
At the same time, the social order of high school and William’s understanding of it register with subtlety. A spark ignites between him and the longed-for Alexa at his “secret spot” — a Christmas-lights display that’s suggested in the terrific opening-credits animation. Yet he’s already looking past this night, knowing that they’ll never occupy the same tier.
It’s not simply a matter of haves and have-nots, though, as the next morning’s revelation of Alissa’s relative wealth makes clear. While the central couple’s insistently casual camaraderie masks deeper feelings, the two actors don’t overstate the matter. Individually charismatic, they have a persuasive onscreen chemistry.
All the performances have an off-the-cuff vitality in this quiet film. Deceptively uneventful, it uses the cover of nighttime to strong effect, and finds a fresh talent at the wheel.
Production company: Petrichor Films
Cast: Emma Corley Geer, Matthew Brown, Joshua Pagan, Cameron Morton, Gabriel Douglas
Director: Matthew Brown
Screenwriter: Matthew Brown
Producer: Matthew Brown
Director of photography: Donald R. Monroe
Production designer: Connor Sullivan
Editor: Max Wilde
No rating, 78 minutes
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