With the success and phenomena that is Stranger Things (2016), it’s safe to say that we will see that style lifted across popular culture for as long as it’s success is maintained, and likely even further. Boys in the Trees, from Australian director Nicholas Verso, may be one of the first to attempt to tap into that vein and while it has some victories, Verso delivers a visually appealing but somewhat lacking feature film.
The film takes place on horror’s favorite holiday, Halloween. From afternoon to night, we follow Corey, a cool kid punk skater who spends the day flirting with his crush Romany and taking turns swigging on a bottle of booze. The movie is steeped in nineties miscellanea, referencing dial-up internet and littered with the house metal music of the day, Rammstein and Marilyn Manson amongst others. The bulk of the film takes Corey on his journey home with childhood friend and current outcast, Jonah. Besides being harassed by the self-proclaimed leader of the upper echelon of teenagers, Jango, the boys become haunted by more than just the ghosts of their past.
It’s very much a piece on broken and schismed childhood memories and a redemption tale. After taking a particularly embarrassing photograph of the diminutive Jonah, Corey feels sympathetic for the boy despite his crews constant fun had at his expense and agrees to walk him home. The past slowly unravels and it’s revealed that Jonah and Corey were once friends but it fell by the wayside once Jonah garnered unpopular attention at school. As Halloween day stretches into Halloween night,
Verso attacks the film with a focus on visceral impact. The movie has the same styles and smooth devices seen in sleek and tight music videos of the modern day, in fact sometimes indulging too often in these stylizations. Verso seems to take this motif and run with it; Boys is ultimately overindulgent but filled with good intentions and great ideas. Verso, also tackling writing duties, tries to succeed in one of the most difficult balancing acts that exist in cinema. Creating a script that presents fun tales of terror filled with flair but also verbose bouts of emotional verbal fisticuffs. Often times, characters present speeches that would put any Gilmore Girl to shame.
While glimpses are seen of what Verso seemed to want to create, it’s often drowned out by some muddled storytelling and an overdrawn run time. At it’s best, it manages to callback the humor and style of Fright Night (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987), capturing the feeling of the era it’s portraying while straddling the terror with the flash. At it’s worst, though, it can’t find a theme. It’s melancholy but begging to be fun, it’s a story of redemption but becomes too heavy-handed, it spurs itself into the fantastical but never anchors the viewer in reality, The majority of the movie is set on the precipice of success but just can’t manage to cross that line. Verso strikes out with the grand ambition of evoking emotion, a harbinger of a more innocent time, but fails to make the piercing blow. The time it is set in, approximately 1997, is no mistake. Verso has stated how he believes it may have been the last time that children could truly go out at night, a time before cell phones become an everyday convenience, before the high-speed internet and social media.
The cast is good, but more importantly, believable. Even though the script fails the actors sometimes, they are mostly able to hold their ground and shake out some three-dimensional performances. While Corey, portrayed by newcomer Toby Wallace, is given the bulk of the movie to carry on his back the other performers are able to stand out with what they’re given. Wallace deftly creates the illusion of a cynical teenager hiding a series of insecurities, he’s able to portray a strength and a fragility that makes him a sympathetic lead. Justin Holborow, tackling the prototypical bully, defies all conventions and actually gives some depth to the normally shallow casting. Mitzi Ruhlmann, as love interest Romany, is serviceable and Gulliver McGrath’s turn as Jonah has the most difficult task as he is handed some of the silliest high school poetry dialogue but he does what he can with it. This is perhaps where the movie falters the most, where the cast is betrayed by the dialogue. Not the entire script is overwrought with beat ‘em dead social commentary and thinly veiled allusions to the loss of innocence, but when it is, it’s hammered on.
Boys in the Trees is a rollercoaster ride of a film, up and down with great moments of true entertainment followed by other spots bogged down with obtuse and almost pretentious storytelling. For every inspired costume party scene, there is some strange subplot with a reoccurring man in white that never fleshes out. For every frame of dreamy and atmospheric night time Halloween pageantry, we are ripped out of the film with a cut and paste copy of the Romeo and Juliet (1996) balcony scene.
While the acting crew is to be admired and Verso is obviously flexing some visible talent, the most noticeable rising star may be cinematographer Marden Dean. The movie is definitely pretty to look at and Verso must once again be commended as he decided to handle editing duties on top of his already dual layered responsibilities. The soundtrack chosen, cut expertly with most scenes, is also just a blast for any child of the nineties.
Boys in the Trees isn’t a movie that is going to break the mold in any way. It doesn’t hit hard enough in any one way to make a real impact but what it has going for it is almost just as precious. It’s teeming with talent. It’s a movie full of passion and skill but just shy of finding the right conduit to turn it into a classic. It’s a neat little secret you can share amongst your friends, to look back on, and remember when you saw the movie that all these wonderful people were in together. It’s easy to imagine the wins that most of this cast will go on to have and it’s worth watching them almost reach that goal line with this Australian holiday tale.