All the Wilderness is caught somewhere between a terrific short film and a tender, sensitive coming-of-age drama. Without credits, Michael Johnson’s film is 71 minutes long, which is too brief to fully explore the pain and pleasures experienced by young protagonist James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Meanwhile, given how the stakes are low and the themes repeat throughout, a 30-minute version of the same material could have been more focused and affecting. Alas, the film must cope with a slender running time.
Although his surname is Charm, James is anything but charming. Obsessed with the macabre, he draws sketches of dead birds and insects in his notebook, and also tells the school bully he expects him to die within the next year. (That altercation gives James a black eye.) Mom Abigail (Virginia Madsen) doesn’t know how to deal with her son’s morbidity, especially after the death of her husband. Instead of dealing with his standoffishness, she sends James to a therapist, Walter (Danny DeVito), whom the teenager also resists.
Of course, sitting cooped up in his bedroom reading poetry aloud will not help a kid going through late adolescence, so James meets a small group of friends while traversing the streets of Portland. Alongside aspiring musician Harmon (Evan Ross), and Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), a cute girl also going through grief and withdrawal, James is able to forget his temporary purgatory at home with some spirited, substance-fuelled evenings in the city.
Throughout All the Wilderness, Johnson has James recite, in voice-over, Carl Sandburg’s poem “Wilderness.” Sandburg’s poem deals with how humans derive some of their personalities and attributes from animals in the wild. (Sample line: “There’s a wolf in me… Fangs pointed for tearing gashes…”) For James, these recitations are supposed to connect him back to his late father, indicated by the bleary flashbacks of wandering around the woods that accompany some of the passages. However, the poem deals with the multi-faceted nature of man, who can take the shape of wolves, hogs, eagles and baboons. In contrast, James is a rather blank creation whose characteristics seem cribbed less from animals than the lonely protagonists from mopey indie dramas.
Nevertheless, Smit-McPhee, skinny and ashen-faced, is just youthful enough to display naivety but mature enough to nail a revealing speech to his mom at the end. In that climactic scene, Johnson lets the camera rests on the actor’s face, as Smit-McPhee performs a pained confession with nuance and restraint. The actor does so with much greater effect than a showier young star would achieve with the same material. His inexpressiveness often works wonders for a character that, beyond his poetic musings, doesn’t have much going for him. Still, despite some strong moments, Smit-McPhee’s character is too nondescript to carry All the Wilderness on his bony shoulders.
Madsen and DeVito get even less to do as James’ parental and psychological guardians, in roles that could have been handed to any character actor looking for work today. Better are the film’s young stars; besides Smit-McPhee, Ross gives off some mischievous energy as the free-spirited, Chopin-playing Harmon, while Fuhrman gives a wry, sarcastic touch to Val that makes us understand why she enchants the protagonist so much. Like the adults though, both Harmon and Val feel a bit limited by the short running time.
Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography of the placid, serene woods gives All the Wilderness an ethereal quality, but the parallels between the dark woods and the chaotic jungles in the city where James hangs out are too obvious. In scenes where teens smoke and dance, the camera twirls around the young characters before blending in these images of wild nights out with footage from the actual woods. The dizzying camerawork, which creates a floating sensation, would have worked well without these parallels. Beyond James’ presumed connection to the animals, Harmon recounts a dream he had that also featured some woodland critters, a creative touch that reeks of thematic desperation.
There are a few intriguing sequences that compare James’s life to the wilderness around him. In one scene, the sound of cawing birds outside escalates with thundering volume, drawing James closer to his window. (He eventually escapes from his home in the next scene and runs away.) In other moments, indistinct dark shadows creep up around James as he bolts through the woods and streets, signifying the dangers of pubescent life. All the Wilderness could have used more of that expressionistic energy to complement the raw feelings of the characters. However, Johnson’s film is too satisfied with tired symbolism about the recklessness of youth, as well as the familiar beats of coming-of-age stories. Due to this, the drama rarely comes to roaring life.
There’s a ferocious, emotionally raw film trying to burst out of All the Wilderness, but the drama settles for sensitive acting and familiar metaphors.