'Burn Your Maps': Film Review

The performers shine, even if the material doesn't.
6/21/2019

Jacob Tremblay and Vera Farmiga star in Jordan Roberts' quirky drama about an 8-year-old boy who becomes obsessed with all things Mongolian.

If you're wondering why child actor Jacob Tremblay has barely seemed to age in his new film, it's because Burn Your Maps has been sitting on the shelf for three years. First screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Jordan Roberts' drama co-starring Tremblay and Vera Farmiga is the sort of determinedly offbeat effort that requires expert execution to pull off. Unfortunately, despite some fine performances and enjoyable moments, the film never manages to make its quirkiness engaging.

Based on a short story by Robyn Joy Leff, the pic concerns a family struggling to deal with a tragic loss. In an early scene, we see Connor (Carton Csokas) and Alisa (Farmiga) in a couples therapy session. Their third child, an infant daughter, has recently died, and the marriage has clearly become strained. He complains about the fact that they no longer make love, while she counters with an offer of oral sex whenever he wants it, adding that she would really prefer that he find another partner.

Their 8-year-old son Wes (Tremblay) has seemingly found another outlet for his grief. He's become obsessed with all things Mongolian, styling himself as a goat herder and walking around with goats and eagles made out of paper. Delivering a presentation at school, he even demonstrates the art of Mongolian throat singing. (The origins of his apparently newfound passion are never satisfying explained or dramatized.)

While his father is disturbed by Wes' strange behavior, Alisa, who teaches English to newly arrived immigrants, is gently encouraging. So is Ismail (Suraj Sharman), one of her Indian students and an aspiring filmmaker, who after meeting Wes decides that the little boy would be the perfect subject for his debut feature documentary.

Cue the inevitable crowdfunded trip to Mongolia (partially doubled by Alberta, Canada, and beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer John Bailey) undertaken by Alisa, Wes and her student, with Connor staying home to take care of the couple's teenage daughter (played by Taylor Geare, a character sadly neglected in the storyline). At their exotic destination, they meet and form friendships with Victoria (Virginia Madsen), a former nun of 25 years, and Batbayar (Ramon Rodriguez), their guide, actually a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, with whom Alisa develops a mild flirtation.

The barely-there storyline never develops any emotional traction, with the primary dramatic moment involving Wes and Alisa helping in the birth of a baby goat. That episode leads to a mildly amusing segment in which Alisa desperately tries to find a home for the animal, which she carries around like an infant. There's also a less than amusing running gag involving Ismail, whose social skills are non-existent, constantly professing any lack of romantic interest in Alisa because of her advanced age.

It's all about as painfully awkward to watch as it sounds. It's only the lead performers who make the proceedings remotely bearable. Tremblay demonstrates yet again that he is one of the most emotive child actors in the business, his character tugging at the heartstrings even when behaving in utter ridiculous fashion. And Farmiga conveys so many conflicting emotions in such quicksilver and effortless fashion that she actually manages to elevate the gimmicky material into something seemingly profound.

Production companies: Cinelou Films, Big Wheel Entertainment, Defender Films, Patrick Aiello Productions
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Vera Farmiga, Suraj Sharma, Virginia Madsen, Marton Csokas, Ramon Rodriguez
Director-screenwriter: Jordan Roberts
Producers: Patrick Aiello, Mark Canton, Julie Kirkham, Courtney Solomon
Executive producers: Mark Axelowitz, Babak Eftekhari, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Scott Karol, Arnaud Lannic, Dennis L. Pelino, Lawrence Smith
Director of photography: John Bailey
Production designer: Gae S. Buckley
Costume designer: Annie Bloom

Editor: Susan Shipton
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Casting directors: Rhonda Fisekci, Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes