Early in Patricia Rozema’s “Into the Forest,” an intimate sci-fi portrait of sisterhood which has been adapted from Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel of the same name, one of the film’s few male characters casually declares that it’s the end of the world. He may not be wrong: It’s been 10 days since an unexplained power outage has sent the entire country back to the Stone Age, and there doesn’t seem to be any hope that the lights will come back on again anytime soon.
In northern California, where Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) and her younger sister Nell (Ellen Page) live in a secluded glass house with their dad (Callum Keith Rennie), our precariously fragile civilization has already started to crumble. And yet — after the man of the house dies in a freak accident and the two girls are left to care for themselves — hints begin to emerge that this may not be doomsday after all, but rather the dawn of a new era in which women are freed from the patriarchy and reacquainted with their innate power.
That may sound a bit hokey, but — to the great detriment of the film — Rozema (“Mansfield Park”) doesn’t push the future feminism angle to its full degree, the ideas baked into her script never becoming nearly as dynamic as the characters who are desperate to bring them to life. The kind of desolate survivalist drama that allows lo-fi (and even lower-budget) indie films like “Take Shelter” to paint on a broad canvas, “Into the Forest” gently traces the silver lining that might take shape around the collapse of our current world order. But, while its very timely notions about women leading the way forward are both strong and salient, Rozema lacks the vision required to let viewers see this vision of the future as clearly as she does.
The opening scenes, in which Rozema clumsily introduces her film’s version of the near future, depict a world in which digital technology is driving a wedge between families. Sound familiar? Nell, prepping for the SATs, is glued to a shiny computer that’s quizzing her about the definition of the term “fugue state” (there’s a good chance you’ll be tested on that later). Her sister, a dancer who’s aging out of her prime, is gyrating to a Cat Power cover in the studio attached to the house. The TV barks in the background. The tension is thick, but nobody is willing to push through it. The clues are at once both too vague and too on the nose, but it’s clear that there’s meant to be something unnatural about this behavior — nestled in an endless stretch of redwoods, this strained human activity feels like a cancerous cell in a body that would be much healthier without it.
When the world goes to shit, any potential upside initially proves elusive. The girls immediately seem vulnerable, and their dad — a decent, loving man — assumes the role of protector. His daughters aren’t the least bit helpless, but it’s hard to ignore the predatory gaze they attract during their last trip into town, and Rozema’s framing does a masterful job of conveying a feeling of unease and unsafeness.
It’s only after the family retreats back to the woods and Nell and Eva left are left to their own devices that the film begins to falter, as though Rozema is suddenly unsure as to what she’s looking for. As Nell and Eva contend with increasingly terrible threats against their safety, it’s clear that they are capable of creating a world in their own image, but Rozema fails to visualize what that image might be. The potency of the story’s setting is consistently untapped — the forest that engulfs the movie never feels like more than a sea of trees. Nell’s violent modern dance moves are more focefully expressive than anything in the environment around her.
The film is regrettably more adept at conveying weakness than it is at conveying strength; it’s never been more tempting to embrace the idea that the world would be in better hands with women at the wheel, or that we all suffer from a system that denies them the opportunity to participate in their own power, but “Into the Forest” gets lost in the woods as it tries to articulate its most abstract ideals.
The movie’s greatest strength is that Page and Wood are wholly believable as sisters. Nell and Eva very different people, and at different places in their lives, but the actresses manage to draw the gulf between their characters without ever defaulting into archetypes. Eva tends towards depression, while Nell is younger and has yet to share some of her sibling’s disappointments, but family members are not designed to be foils for each other, and the contrasts between these two women never feel overly convenient. Their love for one another may not be quite as explicit as it is in the book, but they do love each other, and are stronger because of that. Page and Wood navigate this difficult, often half-formed material with great tenderness and surgical precision — together, through thick and thin, they convey a feeling of great personal growth, revealing new wrinkles to their roles long after Rozema’s camera has stopped looking for them.
“Into the Forest” is now playing on VOD, and opens in theaters on July 29.