The Wilderness of James: SXSW Review

Michael Johnson/CAA
An affecting debut, despite the subject's familiarity.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a teen grappling with loss in Portland, Oregon.

AUSTIN – An emotionally isolated teen deals with his father's death in The Wilderness of James, a sure-footed debut by Michael James Johnson. Familiar subject matter is only a slight handicap for the well-acted, sensitive coming-of-age tale, which is sure to earn respect on the fest circuit and beyond.

As he did in last year's A Birder's Guide to Everything, Kodi Smit-McPhee plays a young man whose passion for naturalism is a way of maintaining connection with a dead parent. This time around, the loved one is a father who spoke of "wilderness" in terms that clearly link overgrown, unruly nature to the difficult-to-tame emotions each person conceals from others. James spends much of his time on solitary walks, sketching in a book whose focus on dead things -- from birds to his father -- might be one reason his mother (a sympathetically frustrated Virginia Madsen) has him making regular visits to a shrink. (Danny DeVito is restrained and appealing in his few minutes onscreen.)

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Frustrated that his understandable morbid preoccupations are being misinterpreted by his mother, James sneaks out on nocturnal explorations -- well caught by Adam Newport-Berra's handheld camera -- and soon encounters a new world: Harmon (Evan Ross), a musician living in a skateboarders' squat, introduces him to pot and other misdemeanors; Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), a girl he recognizes from his therapist's office, surprises him by suggesting they spend time together in the daylight.

Johnson's script offers just enough complication here to give his slender film the shape of a conventional drama; while James's response to an early encounter with a bully may (given similar themes in other recent fest films) cause viewers to worry that this is going to become a school-shooting drama, nothing like that is in store. Smit-McPhee's wide, apprehensively watchful eyes hide secrets, but not malice.

The picture makes good use of both the green and the industrial hideouts Portland offers, using atmospheric but fashionable songs by Alex Somers and Sigur Ros's Jonsi to tie those aspects of the city together. References to poetry and classical music weave together with these sensual elements throughout, drawing a convincing and specific picture of the forest inside James's mind.

Production Companies: Super Crispy Entertainment, Kamp Grizzly

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Virginia Madsen, Danny DeVito

Director-Screenwriter: Michael James Johnson

Producers: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling

Executive producers: Nick Frenkel, Glenn Howerton

Director of photography: Adam Newport-Berra

Production designer: David Storm

Music: Jonsi and Alex

Costume designer: Savannah Johnson

Editor: John-Michael Powell

Sales: CAA

No rating, 76 minutes