Ellen Page Evan Rachel Wood
INTO THE FOREST Review: A Tech Disaster Leads to a Lukewarm PictureMonday, August 01, 2016 Rob Samuelson
Our connection to technology is greater than ever before in the planet’s history. Our addiction to it has risen to unprecedented levels. We assume it will always be there for us, continually creating new conveniences and improving our lives until we are the most efficient animals the universe has ever known.
But it can all stop. Something unexpected can happen, like a worldwide blackout caused by unknown forces, as in writer-director Patricia Rozema’s (Mansfield Park) new film, Into the Forest. Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) and Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler, Across the Universe) star as teen sisters in the Pacific Northwest sometime in the near future. Page’s Nell is studying hard for the SATs and Eva (Wood) is practicing for a national dance competition, when the lights go out. No big deal, they think, and they figure the power will be back in short order. It won’t, though, and the film charts their course through 15 months of electricity-free survival, while the world falls apart around them.
For weeks Nell and Eva stay holed up with their father (Callum Rennie, Californication) in their beautifully modern (and secluded) home deep in the woods. Their dad is the type of character who is so understanding and sympathetic to his daughters that, well, you can extrapolate what happens to him -- he’s more of a loyal dog than a complicated human. He doesn’t show even the slightest hint of annoyance, let alone parental anger, when he picks up a drunken Nell from a beach party.
The dad character is a symptom of Into the Forest’s issues, particularly in its first half. Outside of setting up the premise and a brief but harrowing and lyrical scene of loss -- sunlight dances between trees in slow motion while sadness builds -- the first hour of the movie is largely incident- and conflict-free. Nell’s boyfriend, Eli (Max Minghella, The Social Network), is blandly helpful and nice, but mostly serves as an expository device to offer hope of a place across the country that may have power -- the rumor is hardly explored, however. Despite the vast differences in their interests and personalities, Nell and Eva get along fine -- they disagree at times, but the temperature is lukewarm, and the issues between them get resolved quickly. The tension that does get introduced comes from other sources, like bikers on an empty road late at night or a skeevy employee who sells the family supplies off the back of a truck. This is not helpful for a movie that is mostly a two-hander between Page and Wood.
This leaves the film in a predicament. Survival, at least at this early juncture, is not a major struggle. Nell and Eva know they have plenty of food, and very few people know where they are, so post-apocalyptic marauders aren’t likely to come knocking at their door. This leaves little to do for the two sisters. It becomes a tale of mundanity, all about chopping wood, hunting for berries, and coming to terms with loss. Rozema’s camera gets to bask in the beauty of nature, and the greens and browns of the forest move with the wind in a way that makes it look like the entire ecosystem is breathing. It renders Nell and Eva mere inhabitants of their environment, not its most important parts. That may be an important lesson for our tech-obsessed times, but as a story about human beings it flattens itself out unnecessarily. It never feels like there is any doubt that they will work things out and learn to cope with the new world order. It is dull.
About an hour in, that changes. Another wood chopping scene becomes emotionally wrenching, with a medium closeup of Eva’s face as panic and anguish flood her. Wood’s reddened cheeks and rage-filled hatred at her predicament transcend what has, until this moment, been a plodding film about day-to-day living in a less-than-ideal situation. This scene reminds her and the audience that safety can be snatched away in an instant. The fallout from this scene leads to a far superior second half.
Eva and Nell must make a decision. It requires each of them to confront their lack of power over their situation. The choice they make means they cannot run from the terrible things of their past. Eva must live with a constant reminder of the worst experience of her life. That she does not waver in her choice is powerful, even if Nell’s reaction is mixed. She helps her sister because she must, because for all intents and purposes they are alone in the world. But it’s never clear whether she agrees with Eva’s choice -- she begins the process in a state of outright rejection. Yet she puts aside whatever qualms she has to pick up more responsibilities in their now-decaying home. Page’s performance in this sequence speaks to anyone who has put aside their moral qualms they have with a situation. She simply lets the busyness of her days overcome her doubts -- she is too exhausted to worry.
But Into the Forest does not have the same urgency as Nell working hard to prepare her family for the challenges to come. It contemplates, at a slow pace, into circles. Its largest problems could be improved by injecting some more complexity into the early relationship between the sisters and their father -- small arguments diffuse themselves in orderly fashion, almost like an episode of Full House -- and building a more haunting and threatening world. The power of its later scenes are not necessarily informed by its earlier moments, which read more like vignettes of off-the-grid living than as parts of a cohesive whole.
Director: Patricia Rozema
Writer: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Rennie, Michael Eklund
Rating: Three stars out of five
Available on demand now (iTunes, Amazon Prime, etc.)