Michael Johnson makes his feature debut with The Wilderness Of James, a film that explores one boy’s attempts at dealing with loss during a tumultuous time in his life. Filled with raw emotionality throughout, the film never feels like a debut, but rather the work of a seasoned veteran. Then again, considering the outstanding performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee anchoring the film, Johnson’s job had to have been a lot easier than it might have been otherwise.
The film picks up a few months months after the death of James’ (Kodi Smit-McPhee) father and he’s struggling to find a way to cope. He goes to a therapist, but that doesn’t give him much help, nor does the possibility of going to a school for gifted kids. Instead, he takes to the woods and the streets, drifting around in a haze until he’s able to meet a new friend, Harmon (Evan Ross), and reconnect with a girl he met at the clinic, Val (Isabelle Fuhrman). As they help him experience a different side of life, he begins to recover as he changes his own outlook.
Any child who has lost a parent is going to have a lot going on inside, but from the start of the movie it seems like there may be more to James than meets the eye. There’s a peculiar mysticism about him, but he’s also a bit socially awkward and blunt. He’s clearly too smart for his age, but not in a way that makes him narcissistic or unpleasant. No doubt he’s flawed, but he’s still a very likeable character, which is important as the movie is so focused on James’ life.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is absolutely phenomenal in the role. This is a slice of his life, and for much of it we’re inside his head, so a good chunk on the movie hinges on his performance. Fortunately, he’s incredible throughout, showing yet again that he’s going to be a major name in Hollywood for many years to come. For the majority of the film there’s a dreary subtly to his performance, but the scenes which require him to do more are just as impressive. While watching it’s not difficult to be sucked straight into his pain, his confusion and his wilderness.
Part of how Johnson brings us into James’ head is through a series of voice-overs. It’s extremely difficult to make voice-overs work, especially when they reveal the character’s thoughts as opposed to simply serving as narration. Here though, they work wonderfully, as they allow us to get further inside his head. They’re clearly meant to be poetic, but not so much so that they seep into pretension. Johnson takes a challenging device and executes it with incredible skill so that it actually works. That in itself is an impressive feat.
It’s just not in the voice-overs that the writing is excellent. For this to be not only Johnson’s directorial debut, but also the first feature he’s written (at least that’s been produced), it’s sharp from start to finish and flows extremely well. It’s rather short by feature standards (about 76 minutes including credits), but that doesn’t mean the story is weak. Rather, the fat has been trimmed, rendering everything that’s here both captivating and necessary.
Of course, that short run-time and the prominence of James’ inner monologue does mean there’s less time to explore the supporting characters. Yes, this is clearly James’ story, but it still would’ve been nice if the quality older actors in the film had something to do. While Danny DeVito is oddly intriguing as the chess piece-carving therapist, there really isn’t all that much to his character. The same goes for Virginia Madsen, who plays James’ caring, yet lost mother. She has a larger role than DeVito, and is enjoyable to watch, but her appearances are far too short and inconsequential.
The only character aside from James who gets fully fleshed out is Evan Ross’ Harmon, who’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen in a long time and possibly even more captivating than James himself. Harmon befriends James on the bus and introduces him into the city’s teenage nightlife, but the first scene where we meet him, he’s hunched over a piano in an alley, looking more like the Phantom of the Opera than some hip kid. Only a few seconds long, that scene is all it takes to build the intrigue his character requires. Once James actually meets him, things are able to build even further. What the other supporting characters are lacking, Harmon makes up for.
Another remarkable aspect of the film is the cinematography. Many movies have tried to capture urban settings in a hip way, but the majority of those efforts end up failing. The Wilderness Of James is not one of them. Every shot is a feast for the eyes and there are some extended night scenes that can only be described as stunningly beautiful. The composition of the shots does a lot to set the tone of the film, as does the excellent soundtrack. The music works perfectly track after track, with an huge array of styles coming together to add to the film’s distinct voice.
The Wilderness Of James is a very stylized slice-of-life film. With that considered, it may not appeal to everyone. However, between the excellent performances, quality writing and beautiful cinematography, there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t. The relatable message remains – that introspection and experience can sometimes be better therapy than any doctor can provide. Throw that on top of an interesting story with a couple distinct and complex characters, and Johnson has himself a remarkable directorial debut.
Despite being Michael Johnson's debut, The Wilderness Of James seems like the work of a veteran director, as it deals with one boy's struggles in a heartfelt and powerful way.