2013 is already looking like a banner year for films about the loss of childhood innocence. Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker are two high-profile auteurist works that opened to much critical acclaim. Now it’s the turn of far less established debut director Daniel Patrick Carbone, whipping up a whirlwind of comparable raves and deservedly making quite the name for himself at Tribeca, with many commenters already calling it the best film of the festival.
This sparse, foreboding rumination on adolescent growing pains sees brothers Tommy (Ryan Jones) and Eric (Nathan Varnson), living a free range childhood in rural New Jersey. Riding bikes, roaming the woods and routinely meeting up with friends to cheer each other on in wrestling matches, these consequence-free childish games take a disturbing turn when Eric discovers his younger brother’s best friend Ian dead beneath a bridge. The sudden realization of their own mortality sends shockwaves through the group, and much of the rest of the film traces the two brothers uneasily coming to terms with their place in the community, nature and a larger world,
Right away, there’s an undercurrent of thickening threat in this bucolic playground, an extended opening shot of a snake devouring a fish putting the writing on the wall. In the thrall of teenage turmoil and their own growth, the boys miss all the warning signs in this idyllic Eden, constantly returning to ominous images of dead animals and nature thriving in the cracks of decaying man-made structures. Kicking through the wall of the derelict building they have made their den, one of Eric’s buddies disturbs a cluster of angry spiders and the day before his death, Ian thinks nothing of swinging a dead blackbird through the air like a toy airplane.
If this all sounds incredibly heavy-handed and overwrought, there’s an ambiguous tension in the imagery which makes it the very antithesis of Malickian pretentiousness. Nick Bentgen’s verdant cinematography abounds with strange, harsh beauty, inspiring feelings of wonder as well as dread. Fondly reminiscent of a time when kids weren’t chained to computers, he also captures something of the ineffable joy of an outdoors upbringing, the two tones often clashing with indelible effect. Trying to get back to normality after the tragedy, the brothers ride past all their old, familiar haunts, their carefree moment of bonding overlayed with the sound of children playing, dearly departed Ian’s voice amongst them.
An atmospheric, visually abstract portrait of disturbed youth, Carbone shuns conventionally dramatic scenes in favor of moments of quiet contemplation that cumulatively build with forceful, poetic intensity. The image of the brothers bathing in a murky lake elicits Eric’s own feelings of being swamped by anger, living against his will in a cultural wasteland. A big guy with pent up aggression seething behind his hard stare, it’s strange that he’s so easily pinned whenever he wrestles. In the aftermath of Ian’s death, a good friend of his entertains thoughts of suicide and powerless to process what this means or knowing how to stop it, Eric’s only opponent seems to be himself. Flailing in a much bigger internal battle, his grassy hill tussles turn his psychological turbulence inside out.
This change doesn’t escape the ever-observant eyes of Tommy, mesmerized and frightened by the confusion consuming his brother. A lighting rod performance of poised perceptiveness, Ryan Jones reactively plumbs the pains of brotherly love in a manner that’s easy to sympathize with given the film’s disinterest in plot. Experiencing the film through Tommy’s eyes is to be as confounded as he is, though the mature, sensitive direction of Carbone’s exciting new voice consistently impresses.
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