Into the Forest (2016), directed by Patricia Rozema and based on the novel of the same title by Jean Hegland, is a heartfelt but somewhat plodding coming-of-age drama, set against a less-than-convincing backdrop of near-future apocalypse.
For reasons unexplained, the power goes out. A father and his two daughters, living in a high-tech home in a remote forest, must figure out how to go on with their lives in this electricity-less world, rising to challenges practical and emotional. As the world beyond their initially idyllic forest house plunges into darkness, tragic events unfold with near-metronomic inevitability. These experiences force the girls to re-evaluate their perceptions of each other and the world at large.
Rozema, the director of critically-acclaimed films such as Mansfield Park (1999) and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008), is no stranger to adapting novels into films, and her filmography suggests an abiding interest in character relationships over plot or action. This experience, as well as the technical elegance of her direction, are evident in Into the Forest, which begins as an artfully-rendered study in quiet moments between sisters Nell and Eva and their father Robert. Having breakfast; studying for entrance exams; practicing a difficult choreography for class; through these and other seemingly quotidian scenes we learn of their hopes, ambitions and fears. The film adeptly establishes an emotional intimacy lacking in many post-apocalyptic or even future-set movies. It’s also quite beautiful to look at.
The understated screenplay, however, has some pacing problems. The glimpses of the siblings’ inner lives become repetitive after a while. In the film’s opening they serve to teach us who the characters are, but once the power has gone out these scenes feel a bit indulgent and static. It’s true that some folks may elect to continue on as though nothing’s wrong when the world is crumbling around them, and that is a valid character insight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for riveting viewing.
Two other problems in execution: the casting, and Max Richter’s score.
Eva and Nell are played, respectively, by Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page, two accomplished and committed actresses who don’t strike a false note, and inform their characters with warmth, depth and humor. Why then do I complain about the casting? These girls are supposed to be teenagers, and I had a hard time believing that. Nell, in particular, is allegedly seventeen, while Ellen Page is twenty-nine, and as events progress that became distracting. If the girls are teenagers, we can view their missteps and even lack of common sense as the result of inexperience married with tempestuousness; but, portrayed by actresses who consistently project quiet intelligence and reserves of maturity, it’s difficult to envisage the characters in this more unshaped way. That makes us less inclined to be sympathetic, and more likely to become frustrated by their choices.
This also applies to the character of their father. Callum Keith Rennie is a brilliant character actor, but here his role is too soft and bland to command our attention. Robert comes across as caring but somewhat clueless. When the power grid troubles start, he never shifts into a more protective mode towards his daughters, nor does he demonstrate any survivalist urgency, which made it hard for me to connect with him.
The music is engaging and even effectively heart-tugging for about twenty percent of the film, but aggressively over-sentimental the rest of the time. I appreciate that Richter is going for nobility and sacrifice and pathos, but his heavy-handed score often bypasses tension and subtlety to get there. Also, the siblings’ watching of home-movies is distractingly slathered with Cat Powers’ cover of “Wild is the Wind.”
These musical choices have the unfortunate result of reminding us of the movie’s artifice, instead of drawing us in to its art. Ultimately, the fault lies not with the composer but with Rozema.
Credibility is stretched more than once throughout the picture. Gas has been depleted, supermarkets have been ravaged to the point where shoppers are being greeted at gunpoint, a motorcycle gang makes gross comment about Eva and Nell being “tasty”—and yet Eva’s ballet lessons go on as normal? Groups of kids continue hanging out by bonfires in the evenings, dancing and drinking without a seeming care in the world? It takes Nell and Eva six months to realize they can pick the berries from the adjoining forest and eat them? And so on.
As mentioned, Robert doesn’t seem particularly concerned about his daughters’ safety, trying to maintain the illusion that things are okay by continuing to drive them into town even when there are obvious signs of danger. He’s not the most resourceful type, either; it takes him ten days to think of an alternate way of starting their car. The breaking point for me in my acceptance of his character was when he stopped to assist someone on the road who hadn’t requested help, greatly jeopardizing his daughters—and himself—in the process. Hate to say it, but because of this behavior, his death through further carelessness was not particularly emotive. And it’s followed by more implausibilities, like the sisters not realizing that gloves might help prevent brutal blisters from forming on their hands while they’re digging his grave, or that it may be wiser to transport his body closer to the house, instead of falling asleep by him out in the open, house unguarded.
On the plus side, some scenes are quite effective. Eva’s throwing her metronome across the room is perhaps too telegraphed, but strikes a chord. The sequence in which Nell believes that wild pigs have dug up their father’s corpse is utterly compelling. Michael Eklund is appropriately creepy. The camera’s vertical tilt during the grueling rape scene serves to drive home the upending of Eva’s reality, and the severe dissociative shock she experiences. Eva’s later confession to Nell about the “black waves” of her depression is also powerful stuff.
There’s a certain commendable quality to Rozema’s minimalistic filmmaking approach, but it’s not enough to make the film stand out. The recent 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) benefitted from similar sparseness and, despite a controversial ending, was better paced, and populated by smarter characters. Z for Zachariah (2015) operates within a similarly quiet post-apocalyptic mold. Perhaps the most damning comparison is John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing and haunting The Road (2009), which travels considerably farther on less, and boasts equally excellent photography and sound design.
There are certainly noteworthy moments in Into the Forest. The overarching tale of struggling siblings who finally give up on the decaying remnants of their former existence and decide to begin afresh is memorable. And the thematic references to fugue states—momentary losses of awareness of one’s identity—are intriguing, suggesting that a more nature-bound existence may dispel our current, technologically-protracted fugue state.
But despite noble intentions—and much like the sisters’ own journey—the film is a bit of a mess.