by Kevin Taft, published on Friday, July 29, 2016|
A study of "letting go," Patricia Rozema's new film "Into the Forest" is an elegantly made dramatic thriller featuring Oscar-caliber performances by two of our best young actresses.
Based on the book by Jean Hegland, the story takes place in the not-so-distant future, where phones and iPads are see-through, computer monitors are bigger than TVs and house lights go on with a voice command. One family lives slightly off the grid in a beautiful house in the woods full of floor-to-ceiling windows, complete with dance studio and acres of land. Callum Keith Rennie ("Battlestar Galactica") plays the genial and strong father to two young women: Eva (Evan Rachel Wood), a dancer looking to audition for a famous dance company, and Nell (Ellen Page), who is cramming to get into Harvard while also navigating first love with a boy named Eli (Max Minghella). The three live a quiet existence, all involved in their own personal goals and plans, while maintaining a genuine closeness.
But when the power goes out in their house, tensions start to flare up. Eva needs to practice, and without music she is struggling. Nell has to study, and just doing so via books is foreign to her. Dad finds this all slightly amusing until the three realize the power outage is nationwide -- possibly worldwide. Soon enough, the family of three finds they need to learn how to survive with limited resources and no communication with the outside world. When tragedy strikes things get much worse, and the two girls find they need to survive on their own.
While the premise would suggest a "Hunger Games"-style dystopian future, with two young women struggling to make it in the world while threats come at them from every corner, this film is a bit different. It feels more like a combination of "The Road" and the German film "The Wall." Both examine the will to survive, but also the struggle to maintain hope in a potentially hopeless situation. Here, the girls settle in to their cut-off existence, slowly and almost unconsciously finding ways to make it work. With a small amount of gas and food stored up for months, they assume they will be fine until the power comes back on. But that never happens, and they soon understand that the existence they've grown comfortable with has to change.
The beauty of "Into the Forest" is that -- despite a few sequences of terror -- the film focuses more on the women's psyche than what outside influences they must face. These are two girls with their own goals, and in that sense the sisters had isolated themselves from each other before the worldwide event occurs. But when their world is shattered they have to slowly work together and rely on each other in ways they never expected would happen. More importantly, they need to recognize that by holding onto the past, they will never move forward. And this is the most difficult test of all.
Director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") creates a gorgeous environment for the women to explore and cinematographer Daniel Grant brings a beauty to a one-location film. There is a constant tenderness that permeates each frame that easily draws us into Nell and Eva's plight. This is enhanced by a gorgeous score from composer Max Richter ("The Leftovers"), whose haunting melodies saturate every frame.
As beautiful as the film looks, it really belongs to Page and Wood. Both give performances that should be remembered at year's end. Wood has never been more vulnerable, and her Eva is the most changed throughout their two-year experience holed up in their family home. What could have been a simplistic character ends up the more layered of the two, and it's fascinating to watch Wood navigate those layers.
Page is also excellent as the younger sister who ends up bucking up as soon as she is called to do so. At the same time, she is still young and needing to find her way and it's those decisions that cause her the most turmoil. She is a young girl forced to grow up too fast; unable to experience the simple things that every young person wants to experience, but finding the strength to do that without complaint. And it is that strength that draws the sisters closer than they were before and allows them to make the enormously tough decisions they ultimately need to.
Beautiful, raw, and tender, "Into the Forest" is an expertly made film and a genuine surprise. It draws you in from the moment it begins and won't let you go until the final frame.