On one level, Into the Forest plays like a horror movie that taps into a certain universal fear of our time. It has all the ingredients to be one of those zombie or outbreak or zombie-outbreak stories that are all the rage right now — all the ingredients except for the actual zombie outbreak. Instead, its catalyst is a simple, widespread, long-lasting power outage, but the effects are essentially as catastrophic. What unfolds is one of those first-world nightmares many of us dread, beginning with the loss of Wi-Fi, then cell service and then electricity, rendering every phone, tablet and computer nothing but a fancy-looking but ultimately useless piece of metal. The horror, the horror.
The simplicity of this premise, however, is also what makes the film far more immediately relatable than other apocalyptic stories whose concerns lie primarily with their world, and secondarily with their characters, which means you often end up with lots of things happening to the characters and learning about them through their reactions to exterior provocations. The underlying theme of many of these types of stories is that humans in a crisis of this magnitude are far more scary and dangerous than whatever the crisis itself actually entails. It’s nice every now and then to have a film treat the catastrophe as background to the more mundane but nevertheless engaging drama of two sisters trying to make it through the wilderness together.
Those two sisters, Nell and Eva, are played here by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood respectively, who you wouldn’t pick to play siblings based on how dissimilar they are as performers, and that’s precisely the point. The two characters are depicted as each taking after one parent, Nell after their father and Eva after their mother. Their interests are completely divergent. Nell is into books, Eva is into dance. There seems to be a noticeable amount of tension, or at least indifference, between the two at the beginning, but despite this, or perhaps because of this, the greatest pleasure of this film is seeing the bond between the two characters strengthen in the wake of compounding crises.
As such, the performances by the principal actresses play a big part in whether Into the Forest works or not, and so it’s an enormous credit to Page and Wood that many of the scenes play as well as they do. Page steals much of the spotlight due to the nature of her character, a more playful, silly, and outwardly emotional person. As an actor she’s already remarkably charming, but as Nell she makes her as endearing as possible without being overly cute about it. One highlight is any time she is moved to dance—Eva (and their mother) uses dance as a certain form of expression, but Nell uses it to get a laugh, both from her family member and from us in the audience. It’s a nice method of showing that these two characters are connected, but significantly different people.
Wood deserves a great deal of praise as well for inhabiting what is perhaps a less obviously likeable character, but a necessary one, the more mature sister who has a better sense of the big picture. It’s a testament to the extreme nature of their situation that this character who aims to be so precise in how she looks, acts, and most of all, moves, that her life begins to unravel, only for her to make a decision towards the end of the film that is both an act of taking back and giving up control.
Into The Forest is admirably defiant of many tropes that spring up in most apocalyptic stories, emphasizing its small character moments over large dramatic ones. Even the fact that it takes place in the forest gives it more of an Into the Woods vibe, visually and thematically, than, say, a Mad Max one. When it does require some scenes to move the plot along, these tend to be not nearly as compelling as the quieter scenes, like when the sisters decide to get drunk, or watch videos of their parents. This is where the main interest and heart of the film, and of director Patricia Rozema, seem to be; everything else is texture, although the texture set by the visual and musical tone provides an appropriate feeling of balance being lost.
Set in an imaginable, only slightly futuristic apocalypse, Into the Forest is a compelling portrait of a sisterly bond in the wake of an existential crisis.