'Boys in the Trees': Film Review | Venice 2016

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Toby Wallace in 'Boys in the Trees'
Too self-conscious to be scary, too studied to be emotionally alive.

A childhood friendship severed by betrayal is renewed — or is it? — on Halloween in the Australian suburbs in Nicholas Verso's collision of harsh reality, memory and dark fantasy.

The very last thing Australian director Nicholas Verso wants to be would appear to be an Australian director. His debut feature, Boys in the Trees, is so thoroughly stripped of local specificity in favor of borrowed American horror tropes and self-consciously cool music-video detours that it lacks an identity of its own. Its biggest weakness is Verso's writing. His basic storytelling skills are solid enough, but in place of dialogue, he stuffs his characters' mouths full of overwritten, strung-together speeches, making it impossible to invest in them as real, vulnerable people.

The movie is steeped in '90s nostalgia, much like the affection for all things '80s in the recent sensation Stranger Things, which should make Boys in the Trees play well with audiences who came of age in that decade. But whereas the Netflix sci-fi series anchored its story of supernatural forces being harnessed by a sinister government agency with character types that felt both familiar and idiosyncratically fresh, the boys in the trees or elsewhere in Verso's murky nightmare world are never more than movie-ish stereotypes. Still, as the calling card of a skilled craftsman with a strongly developed visual sense, the film should open doors.

For a director as attuned as Verso to the power of music to shape a scene, it can hardly be coincidental that this film shares its title with a Carly Simon song, while it's also a very loose expansion of ideas from Verso's effective 2014 short, The Last Time I Saw Richard, that title lifted from a classic Joni Mitchell track. However, the music slathered throughout here is generally of a more period-appropriate vintage (the main action takes place in 1997), from Marilyn Manson and Bush to Rammstein and Garbage.

Performing an impressive backflip from the more fragile role he played in The Last Time I Saw Richard, charismatic newcomer Toby Wallace is Corey, a photography enthusiast secure of his senior ranking among the swaggering skater dudes at school. But it's evident from the start that Toby has a soul, even if survival dictates that he observe the reign of cruelty imposed on weaker kids by bullying ringleader Jango (Justin Holborow). Jango's favorite punching bag is Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), whose tardy physical development compared to his classmates, as well as his loner nature, makes him a target for physical abuse and homophobic slurs. His actual sexuality, however, remains ambiguous.

Corey is attracted to his post-Goth classmate Romany (Mitzi Ruhlmann), who keeps up her cool detachment while making it clear she prefers him away from his moronic mates. Despite all his tough posturing, Jango appears insecure and threatened by Corey's independence, whether the latter is making moves on Romany or applying for a scholarship to study photography at NYU.

Jango is the classic tribal leader, outlining his needs in the simplest possible terms: "Weed to smoke, bitches to f—, fags to bash." But Holborow quietly signals the character's need to keep the far more intelligent Corey close for reasons he can't or won't articulate; he also hints at Jango's subconscious suspicion that his life after school will be all downhill.

Corey and Romany share a desire to escape the nowhere town — she dreams of the snowy climes of Canada. The movie was shot in South Australia and while the setting appears to be suburban Adelaide it's barely identified. Verso neglects to convey a sense of the characters' numbing environment as anything but a shadowy, stylized canvas, heavily populated — given that the action takes place on Halloween, from afternoon through night — with masked ghouls and monsters materializing out of the dark.

The quintessential American horror-movie holiday, Halloween has somewhat grown in popularity in Australia, but its saturation in this environment is more of a default genre choice than a plot point. Even the enigmatic aboriginal angel of death who appears throughout is made up to look like a New Orleans voodoo man, not an Australian bushland mystic. And an oneiric detour into Mexican Day of the Dead territory, while exotic and atmospheric, is just one more way in which the movie seems like cultural counterfeit.

The Halloween timing also serves up some pretty heavy-handed symbolism. "If you want to run with the wolves, you've got to kill a few lambs," Jango tells Corey. So Corey's Halloween costume is — you guessed it — a big bad wolf. The significance when he removes the headpiece and stomps it underfoot won't escape even students who failed semiotics.

Feeling guilty over the role of one of his photographs in Jonah's humiliation, and responsible for unintentionally frightening the social pariah in the skate park that night, Corey agrees to walk him home. It emerges that they were close friends as kids, but Corey left him behind when he joined the cool clique, for reasons that become clear later on. Jonah resurrects a childhood scary-story game they used to play. Their trek across town is marked by spooky allusions to past horrors, some of which may or may not have occurred, as well as by violent brushes with Jango and his goons.

Adding to the overstuffed feel of a movie that runs close to two hours and could easily stand to lose 20 minutes, there's also a straight-up Romeo and Juliet balcony scene between Corey and Romany. Meanwhile, the strangely self-possessed Jonah retreats further and further into the movie's woozy dream state, as time and reality become more porous.

To be honest, Jonah is such an irritating character that it's no stretch to imagine him drawing hostility at school. Verso's script has him talking like an audio horror novel, written in the most purple prose. "Sometimes you have to pull back a piece of reality when it gets in the way," he tells Corey in typically cryptic fashion as past failings are rehashed. Wallace makes Corey more compelling, but even he talks like no high-schooler (Australian or otherwise) who ever existed, while Romany is a Truthspeaker of such fussy hyper-articulacy that her feminist rant about boys with their heads in the trees sounds like carefully prepared debate-team material.

Even a movie that blurs the boundaries between the existing world and the darkest imagination to the extent of Boys in the Trees needs some grounding in reality and believable characters as its springboard for disorienting fear. The absence of those foundations here keeps the stakes low and the emotional involvement negligible.

Working with cinematographer Marden Dean to create a tenebrous nighttime palette of luscious dark hues, Verso shows tremendous visual flair. The skateboard scenes early on are quite hypnotic despite the standard-issue use of slow-mo, and creepy locations like a storm drain or the catchment area of a dam make for arresting settings, alongside more magical design flourishes like a childhood climbing tree that literally illuminates memories. (Kudos to production designer Robert Webb and visual effects chief William Gammon.) But all that style isn't enough to make you care about the inauthentic characters or fret for their safety.

Production company: Mushroom Pictures, in association with White Hot Productions
Director-screenwriter: Nicholas Verso
Producer: John Molloy
Executive producers: Michael Gudinski, Ian Kirk, Mick Molloy, Kevin Maloney, Jon Adgemis, Mark Morrissey
Director of photography: Marden Dean
Production designer: Robert Webb
Costume designer: Erin Roche
Editor: Nicholas Verso
Music: Shinjuku Thief
Visual effects supervisor: William Gammon
Casting directors: Marianne Jade, Maura Fay Casting, Angela Heesom

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons); also in Toronto festival
Sales: Paradigm, Mushroom Pictures

112 minutes.