Toby Wallace and Gulliver McGrath are Corey and Jonah, former friends turned total strangers thanks to the drama of adolescence and the politics of high school. But now its Halloween of their senior year, and tonight they’re going for one last trip to Hell and back…in Boys in the Trees.
FOOT IN THE MOUTH
Boys in the Trees is the first feature film from writer-director Nicholas Verso. And in a number of ways, it’s an exceptional piece of work for a filmmaker with so few credits to their name.
Aside from a personal dislike of a few creative choices for several shots–such as the cliche use of dramatic slow-motion whenever the characters are shown playing on their skateboards–the movie is lovely to look at and listen to. There’s some great use of lighting, shadow, and color. The soundtrack is solid. The pacing is tight. The actors are all endearing in one way or another. And while I do have issues with it, which I’ll touch upon in a moment, the story is at least attempting something sincere, touching, and a bit different.
That said, this is where the inevitable big “but” comes in…
The movie does indeed look and sound good. The actors absolutely put on their best in every scene. But the story is executed poorly and the dialog is utter drivel, rendering all efforts pointless because the movie is a dull mess that’s also a chore to sit through.
In fact, I’m not sure which is done worse–the dialog or the actual story.
The plot itself is fine and simple enough. This is a movie about two former friends sharing one last night together before they likely part ways forever after graduation. The two cross paths, Corey is unnecessarily cruel to the quite, more reserved Jonah in an effort to fit in with the cool kids. The two have a small fight that night. Corey feels bad. And then the two slowly mend their relationship as the night continues.
There’s even a little mystery and fantasy thrown in to spice things up a bit. Little things in the shadows that become more and more clear as things progress. Strange people and things that drift in and out of the film. Is this a dream? Are the boys imagining certain things, or is this weirdness all happening in the really-real world?
And this is all fine and good until someone opens their mouth and says something unbelievably stupid.
FLY IN THE OINTMENT
Everyone in this movie talks exactly as you’d expect a bunch of high schoolers to talk if they were writing and performing their own movie. The dialog is all purple prose that tries to turn every single little exchange into something deep and introspective but only sounds pretentious and nonsensical.
For as good as the actors are in embodying the characters they’re playing–be it Wallace as the conflicted, wishful Corey, McGrath as the strange but charming Jonah, or even Justin Holborow as the troubled bully, Jango. For as good as the actors themselves are, there’s simply no way for them to deliver their lines without sounding like they haven’t a clue what they’re doing.
And this isn’t helped any by Verso’s inability to direct his actors. There are moments where the actors are clearly given more freedom to play with their material, where they sound and act and feel like real people with complex emotions who speak in a normal inflection and diction. But the majority of it is two people wrestling with their stiff, robotic, pseudo-Shakespearean monologuing. It’s all uncomfortable at best and unwatchable at its worst. It’s far too consistent to be anything but a creative choice on Verso’s part, too compatible with the actual unfortunate words everyone has to recite.
ASSES OVER TEA KETTLES
And as you struggle to make heads or tails of the wordy nothingness the characters are saying, you’ll likely also struggle with piecing together exactly what’s happening on screen at any given moment.
The most obvious issue is that the movie goes on a number of little detours, stopping everything between Corey and Jonah to go on some tangent with a wholly unnecessary character and plot thread. There are just so many pointless little storylines that get way too much screen time, such as Corey’s post-high school ambitions and his odd relationship with his father. Or Corey’s would-be relationship with a pretty girl.
The movie is absolutely fascinated with everything but the main story of Corey and Jonah’s damaged friendship. Even the dark truth behind their falling out–the one thing the movie builds up towards the entire time–is largely glossed over. It’s certainly hard-hitting, or at least should be in theory. Because, again, it’s hard to make sense of anything being said or done. But when this truth is shown, it’s over and done with in a few brief shots that are vaguely stitched together to give you a general sense of what happened.
Worse, scenes just sort of happen. Corey and Jonah go here and there without much rhyme or reason, even though it constantly sounds like Jonah has this strange, mysterious master plan he’s unfolding as the night continues.
NEEDLES IN THE HAYSTACKS
Again: the plot is very straightforward, but the story that ties it all together makes very little sense. And the actors are all talented and do their best with the material given to them, but everything they say sounds idiotic.
There’s certainly an aura about the movie, a certain mystique and style to Boys in the Trees that might make it appealing to a select few. The concept definitely should resonate with fans of movies like Mean Creek, Stand By Me, or even Stephen King’s IT. This is ultimately a movie about some troubled youths who must overcome their fears and personal demons to make things right with the world and themselves. This is a dark little coming of age story.
And it’s because of that beautiful core of a movie hidden deep in the big steaming mess that’s the rest of it, that has me wanting to not only like Boys in the Trees but to love it. But it’s simply not enough. The acting isn’t good enough to overcome the bad dialog. The great visuals and tight pacing can’t make up for a movie that just sort of takes its time to go nowhere in particular.
And while I’m very eager to see what Verso has to offer up as a director with future projects, I have no interest at the moment in anything he might have had a hand in writing.
Unless you’re looking to be bored or frustrated or confused about as often as you will be intrigued and loving it all, Boys in the Trees is a NO CHILL.