Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

There’s nothing remotely wild about the indie mope-fest All The Wilderness

Illustration for article titled There’s nothing remotely wild about the indie mope-fest All The Wilderness

All The Wilderness—originally titled The Wilderness Of James, until somebody realized that would land it near the bottom of alphabetical VOD listings—takes its cue from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Wilderness,” which features verses that begin “There is a wolf in me” and “There is a fox in me” and “There is a hog in me.” The film’s teenage protagonist, James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee), recites passages in voiceover throughout, and also talks about how his late father used to describe the wilderness as the place where everything is born and goes to die. But nothing even remotely wild touches this generic indie movie, which embraces every imaginable cliché in depicting the emotional travails of a sensitive kid in mourning. There isn’t a wolf in it, nor a fox, nor a hog, nor much of anything else. Maybe a chicken.

First seen sketching the body of a dead jackdaw in a field near his home, James is obsessed with death, maintaining a notebook in which he records every expired animal he comes across (including bugs) and claiming to know the precise date and time that his pet hamster and the school bully will expire. This worries his mother (Virginia Madsen) enough to send him to a shrink (Danny DeVito, in what amounts to a meaningless two-scene cameo), who wants James to talk about his father. Eventually, it becomes clear that Dad passed away not long ago, which is what’s causing James’ morbid passivity, further embodied by shots of him sitting alone in rooms hugging his legs with his head resting on his knees. (So forlorn!) It’ll take random encounters with music-loving street kid Harmon (Evan Ross) and cute but sardonic potential girlfriend Val (Isabelle Fuhrman, who starred in Orphan a few years back) to break James out of his shell.

First-time writer-director Michael Johnson unquestionably has his heart in the right place, but he’s made a commonplace film built around one of those too-fragile-for-this-world teens who can be traced directly back to Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. Smit-McPhee delivers in a big scene near the end, when James finally reveals the circumstances of his father’s death, but otherwise is confined to tiresome moping, except when roused by his new friends. Trouble is, these ostensibly cathartic relationships are equally bland, just in a slightly more animated way. Harmon is an idealized, Basquiat-esque mix of artist and juvenile delinquent, while Val comes across like a computer program’s notion of how a girl might challenge a screwed-up boy. (“Where are you going?” she asks James. “I’m leaving,” he replies. “Looks like you’re escaping,” churns out the software.) Johnson’s one original idea is to have James inexplicably pursued by hooded figures that can leap about in superhuman ways, but nothing ever really comes of this intriguing expressionistic fillip. The movie is as untamed as Central Park.