'Into the Forest'
Patricia Rozema’s ‘Into the Forest’ is a well-crafted film with wonderful central performances. It’s hinged on a clever concept and filled with ambitious symbols and subtexts suggesting great import. However, something about the film feels oddly lacking by the time the credits close.
Admittedly, this is a deliberately small production that needs to be appreciated on its own modest terms. The trouble is that when a movie is so well-made and constantly prods audiences to engage with it on a deeper level, it needs to have something worth the effort and investment, but nothing like that quite bubbles to the surface here.
Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood star as the close but mildly competitive sisters Nell and Eva. They live in an isolated cabin in the woods with their loving father (the perpetually underrated Callum Keith Rennie) and the memory of a recently deceased mother. Mildly exaggerated technology suggests that the tale exists ever so slightly in the future. For a while, the film follows their modestly ambitious lives as Nell studies for her SATs and Eva practices endlessly for an important dance audition. Nell has a fresh boyfriend (Max Minghella) and everything seems great. Then one day the power shuts off. At first they think it might be an isolated incident, but a trip to town confirms that the outage not only hit the entire community, but possibly the whole planet. The family prepares for a long lonely period of survival, until tragedy strikes and the girls are left on their own. Further (and increasingly ridiculous) tragedy tightens their bond and forces them to push for survival in ways the young women never dreamed possible.
The film is an apocalyptic tale told in an intimate setting. It brings back memories of last year’s underrated ‘Z for Zachariah’, though not particularly favorable ones. Rozema has a command over her craft, finding tension and many striking images within a claustrophobic location, while also pushing her performers to deliver powerful work. Page and Wood apparently spent a year together before shooting and it shows. There’s genuine intimacy between the performers, which can be equally elating and painful to watch depending on the circumstances. That’s tremendously important, given that the bulk of the film is dedicated to the pair and how they struggle with their situation. No matter how strong or weak the scene, the stars play the hell out of it and offer more than enough reason to follow the story to its conclusion.
Unfortunately, the film containing those strong performances can’t always live up to the work the actors provide. As well-crafted as the movie might be technically, ‘Into the Forest’ frequently feels a little lacking dramatically. Every emotional beat is played so hard and loud that it often betrays the intimate style of the proceedings. In particular, a big shocking scene about halfway through is used to heighten the stakes but feels just a little too forced and exploitative to function as intended. At a certain point, all the swelling music and pointed dialogue becomes just a little too much to bear.
At the same time, something feels oddly missing, as if a crucial scene was dropped or a detail omitted that might explain the ever-escalating emotions that never quite add up. The movie also devolves into heavy-handed symbolism and message-making that becomes a little obnoxiously on-point. It’s an odd film that’s both too small and played too large to hit home as intended. Nonetheless, the central concept is strong, as are the performances and visual construction. ‘Into the Forest’ is hardly without merit; it’s just not quite as powerful or meaningful as it pretends to be.