Boyz In The Wood builds off an old dramatic premise. Four contrasting and confused teenagers are removed from their normal lives and dropped into an arena of venture. From there, they must learn to communicate, and in doing so, bond over the truths about themselves they may never have uttered otherwise. It’s a rehashed model, perfectly suited for characters stuck in that cursed age where the question “who am I” gets only one, hasty answer.
But at no point does Boyz In The Wood feel like it has to dig its ideas out of the scraps of the other coming of age films we’ve already taken lessons from over the years: Moonrise Kingdom, Stand by Me, or especially Boyz n The Hood, which this film gets its name from but which has nowhere near the sense of adventure. Ninian Doff’s directorial debut bursts off the screen with eccentric energy and yet, retains a relentless sense of duty to the company its characters keep. It’s effectively touching as a display of camaraderie, equally ridiculous, and a great deal of fun.
The film begins by introducing the Duke of Edinburgh Award Camping Expedition, a program designed to teach urban youth valuable life lessons by plopping them in the middle of Scotland’s gorgeous Highlands (shot beautifully on location). The whole thing sounds like little more than a scholastic life preserver; its pomp and circumstance consist simply of a laminated certificate.
The last-chance youth (all of whom are played convincingly and entertainingly) set to go on the program’s latest voyage are Dean (Rian Gordon), who has a flair for explosive cannabis, Duncan (Lewis Gribben), who somehow avoided expulsion after setting a toilet on fire, and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), who doesn’t understand why people think his stage name is funny. The fourth member of the group and the one good apple among them is Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a product of homeschooling sent there by the pleas of his farmland mother.
The setup is rather ridiculous: with nothing more than a map and a clipboard of goals (teamwork, orienteering, and foraging; a list that also lets the audience know what they should be looking for), the group must navigate through the unseeingly tumultuous hills, where we learn several kids have already gone missing. As he speeds through the instructions, the boys’ instructor even remarks how amazing it is that they let teenagers do this at all, let alone by themselves. But with no regard for the comically hyperbolized warnings, the boys start their trek into the green abyss.
Doff’s screenplay consistently works as a hilarious compilation of incompetence, relying successfully on the lack of qualifications shared between its characters. The boys, other than Ian, have no motivation or sense of awareness; it’s barely even 10 minutes before they’ve ripped apart the map to roll a joint. But outside of their ploys is also a local police department desperate for action – stuck with nothing other than a bread thief scandal, one officer (Kate Dickie) conceives a terrorist zombie case that sounds much more appetizing (when she hears the word “wanker,” she twists and turns it into “Allahu Akbar!”).
For Doff, whose work up until this point has consisted of directing music videos, to effectively blend a part of the human experience with a bold and alluring display of absurdist comedy (the range of which I cannot even begin to express here) is quite the achievement. Especially on the first go-around.
With that said, music is also appropriately at the center of the film. Not only with DJ Beatroot, his several freestyles and displays of self-promotion, but also in its design. Several scenes with the boys feel like they belong in a music video – especially the ones when they’re high, either on weed or rabbit shit (you read that correctly) – and with his background, it is no surprise that it is these moments when Doff shines. One of the most important and fortunate trends in film right now is the ridiculous creativity coming from those in the music industry (Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You from last year is another example), and films like Boyz In The Wood are exactly what prove that.
Dripping with all the right bits of adolescent nonsense, Boyz In The Wood is a perfectly daft tale of companionship, and a magnificent achievement for first-time director Ninian Doff and his cast of Boyz.