All the Wilderness is the latest in a long string of low-budget indies from first-time directors hitting theaters in limited release, coupled with a VOD debut on iTunes, Amazon, and the like. See: Little Accidents, Amira & Sam, next week’s Bluebird. Are they good? Yeah! Are they spectacularly, wonderfully amazing? Eh. More than anything, they’ll serve for the people who see them (not all that many, in a world where “indie” has come to mean movies made with big stars on a budget of tens of millions, not hundreds of millions—looking at you, Spirit Awards) as a reminder to keep an eye on the directors, who are talented, if still learning their craft, and who could easily be snapped up by Hollywood for bigger, more mainstream films at some point. (Unless they’re not white dudes.)
So. All the Wilderness! In this coming-of-age drama, Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road, Let Me In, ParaNorman, and future-Nightcrawler fame—and when are he and Asa Butterfield going to do a movie together, come on?—plays James, a young man set adrift after the death of his father. He’s now socially maladjusted and obsessed with death, specifically with recording the deaths he comes across (birds, bugs, etc.) and predicting the deaths of those around him, which naturally doesn’t endear him to others and help him with the whole “socially maladjusted” thing. His mother, played by Virginia Madsen, tries to get him into a special academy, but James refuses to go, because he thinks it’s a “freak school” and because when do moody teenage boys in coming-of-age dramas ever listen to their mothers? He skips out on his therapy, instead running around at night exploring the “wilderness” of his city (Portland) and of his own inner being.
Writer/director Michael Johnson has crafted a very artsy movie, where nothing much happens and instead of plot we get voiceover of James reciting a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. The whole thing is very intellectual, with teens who listen to Chopin records and quote Moby Dick and a “seedy” underground that consists of boho 20-somethings who gather at night in a skate park to drink beer, smoke pot, steal wine and peaches from bodegas, and listen to music from their extensive record collections on expensive-looking professional equipment. Now, I’ve never been to Portland, but I’m pretty sure the city’s dark side isn’t a Brooklyn hipster’s paradise.
To provide an illustration: The world of All the Wilderness is one where Danny DeVito is a wise, kindly therapist who keeps books of poetry and photography magazines in his office (all the therapists I’ve ever been to are more US Weekly and Time people) and whittles chess pieces during his sessions.
The self-consciously cerebral stylings kept me at arm’s length—I was never able to really get invested in anyone, because the characters felt more like ciphers than real people. That said, again, this is Johnson’s first movie, and I respect that he did something different with the coming-of-age genre, even if it’s not something that worked for me personally. The acting was all on-point, especially from Smit-McPhee and Evan Ross, who plays the cool new friend who introduces James to bad boy things like *gasp* smoking pot and staying out all night. He’s charismatic as hell, and I look forward to seeing what he does next. (He was in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay as Messalla, assistant to Natalie Dormer’s Cressida—I don’t even remember him being in Part 1, and I guess he must have a bigger role in Part 2.) And I like weird, counterintuitive casting, so Therapist DeVito (“Would you care for an egg in this trying time?”) gets a thumbs-up.
On top of that, All the Wilderness is beautifully shot, with a high-contrast yet dreamy look that perfectly matches the movie as a whole, so kudos to cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra for that.
Tl;dr—I wouldn’t necessarily recommend All the Wilderness unless you’re super into hipster movies and/or Portland, but Johnson has chops, and I’m excited to see what he comes up with now that he’s (hopefully) gotten that “Look how cool and smart I am!” vibe out of his system.