Perhaps grief haunts so deeply because the understanding or closure one seeks is from the very person that is no longer there. That pain is even more grave when the loss is unexpected or unexplained. Certainly, James (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is left adrift in the wake of his father’s death, retreating to his own, inner world of reading “Moby Dick,” listening to classical music, and endlessly adding morbid entries to his notebook. When he’s not doing that, he takes to the woods surrounding the Portland home where he lives with his mother Abigail (Virginia Madsen), perhaps hoping to be consumed by something bigger than the ache he wears on his face and in almost every action he takes.
“All The Wilderness,” the feature debut by writer/director Michael Johnson, is certainly big on mood, and admittedly does get plenty of mileage out of its very clear devotion to the films Terrence Malick. The camera of cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra swoops beautifully through the canopy of foliage James explores, and captures the bruising colors of Portland in the early hours or at dusk. But in the midst of all this well-executed photography, atmosphere, and a well-pitched performance from Smit-Mcphee, there’s a story to tell, and it’s unfortunately it’s ultimately very slight.
Reeling in the aftermath of his father’s passing, James becomes slightly rebellious, stays out all night, and befriends musician/skateboard squatter Harmon (Evan Rose) and donut shop worker Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), while reluctantly attempting a couple therapy sessions (with Danny DeVito appearing in a small cameo as his doctor). That’s about it. Johnson is smart to keep his film at a lean, evenly paced 70-minutes or so, but the screenplay is less graceful than the technical execution of the movie. “All The Wilderness” dabbles in cliché (a very brief betrayal between friends over a girl, for example) and builds to the Big Speech moment when James finally spills his guts about his feelings, while revealing a key twist that neatly ties up why everything has been extra difficult for the teenager. It’s a shame because at the periphery of the film are so many elements that another few drafts of the screenplay could’ve opened up to add more texture and depth.
When James first meets Harmon, the skateboarder is also rolling with Crystal (Hannah Barefoot), who in her very brief appearance sends out waves of personality and energy, and could’ve been another interesting character for our lead to bounce off of as he begins to discover a world and culture around him he didn’t know existed. Meanwhile, another thread finds James’ mother seemingly embarking on a new relationship, but this too is left disappointingly dangling. Her grief, coupled with trying to manage an emotionally disengaged son, is complex stuff, but Abigail is largely left one-dimensional. In fact, if some of the revelations at the end of the movie had been made earlier, it would’ve allowed Johnson more avenues to venture down, in what would’ve been a more multifaceted picture.
However, the authenticity and confidence Johnson manages in his first movie are nonetheless impressive. “All The Wilderness” may ultimately be hindered by a narrow scope, but within that view, Johnson gets pretty much every detail right. When he does open up his perspective for whatever comes next, there’s no doubt he’ll have the skills to take his craft to the next level. [B-]