Nicholas Verso’s feature film debut strives to give coming-of-age quandaries a fantastical flourish but chokes on rookie mistakes and false sentiment.
Coming-of-age films with a ‘genre’ twist were all the rage in 2016. From Slash’s delightfully off-kilter fusing of softcore eroticism and sci-fi fantasy to Teenage Cocktail’s high school romance that flirted with thriller conventions and the graphic strand of realism that provided shocks in Raw and chills in urban horror-drama The Transfiguration, young protagonists were prime and center amid peril and dread, plenty of which was emanating from within, borne of specific fears or confusions. With Super Dark Times on the horizon, this rich vein of true-to-life horror and angst has hardly run dry.
Cast in the same mold yet curiously eluding (or eschewing) the genre fest circuit in 2016 was Nicholas Verso’s debut Boys in the Trees. Leave it to Overlook to bring the stray sheep back to its genre flock. While the film is undoubtedly a kissing cousin of all the aforementioned titles, it fails to hold a candle to any of them where it counts the most: execution of intent.
Boys in the Trees does not lack for ambition but rather sabotages itself at every turn by barreling through its runtime with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. That’s not the say the film is fast-paced – heaven’s no – but a comment on Verso’s unfortunate knack for over-explaining even the smallest detail.
The story transports us to a sweltering Halloween eve in the streets of Adelaide where budding photographer Corey (Toby Wallace) is faced with the predicament of growing up. Like all of us at some point he has to decide the cost he’s willing to pay to fit in. Does he go along with the hate crimes Jango (Justin Holborow) and his crew of skater palls perpetrate against Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former friend of Corey’s, or does he take a stand for what he truly believes in? If that sounds sort of been-there-done-that, rest assured that much of Boys in the Trees’ narrative falls in line with the trappings of coming-of-age fare.
Naturally, a stereotypical cast of characters comes to populate the screen. There is the well-meaning would-be, could-be girlfriend who goads Corey on to find his real self (“you’re a much nicer guy when you’re not around them”), a bumbling father out of touch with his surroundings and a wannabe alpha who desperately seeks to assert his dominance over the rest of the pack out of a fear to be left behind once his chums grow up and make something of themselves. Boys in the Trees resembles a who’s who of teenage archetypes.
We could look past such overfamiliarity if the dialogue felt true to life. Sadly, Verso does not have the ear for teen speak the screenwriters of Super Dark Times so clearly possess. Instead of their naturalism we are treated to Dawson’s Creek levels of implausibility. Egregious lines range from the banal and too on the nose (“these guys don’t get you”, “we’re teenagers, nobody gets us, that’s half the fun”), to the clichéd (“not everyone can survive the dark”), and ponderous or literary (“Edward’s dreams were so big, they were like universes unfolding forever”). Even taking into account that the film occupies a nebulous middle ground between coming-of-age story and surreal fairy tale far too much of it sounds writerly, self-serious and just plain hokey.
Making all of this much more infuriating is the fact that Boys in the Trees has the technical polish of a skilled production. While the sense of visual style contains a few too many slow-motion bicycling intermezzo’s (Spielberg anyone?) and skate park montages (some of which are garishly lit in a bid to up the cool factor), production design pays an astounding attention to detail. Sets are meticulously realized and always vibrant. Conjuring a dreamscape that is infused with a Goth/ Gothic aesthetic, Boys in the Trees is never dull to look at and oozes an appealing if emo atmosphere.
Before long, however, the avalanche of dialogue kills early promises of visual storytelling. Much of the film follows Corey and Jonah, reunited for a walk about town that becomes a trip down memory lane, but inelegantly interwoven flashbacks and inset stories akin to fables drain energy from a main narrative that struggles to get going. Its anecdotal intertextuality creates a broader fantasy world but also lends the film the anthology-feel of a TV-series. Much of it smacks of a desperate approximation of the combined imaginations of Roald Dahl and Angela Carter – experts at mixing dark cruelty with wonder and lofty inspirations that remain well out of reach.
As Boys in the Trees drones on, becoming an interminable trudge at nearly two hours, viewers can’t help but zone out, disenchanted with accounts of darkness, wolf and lamb metaphors, similes, symbols (the entire stylistic shebang) and more trite life lessons than any fairy tale volume is equipped to handle (really, all boxes are checked in the most overt fashion possible; it details the risks of wanting to grow up too fast, covers the dangers of not being true to yourself or abandoning dreams, and explores the need to belong amid fears of dying alone).
Not for a single second does the viewer question just how deeply well-intentioned this all is, but Boys in the Trees feels forced nearly every step of the way, always spelling out literally what it yearns to express symbolically. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the film’s soul-searching journey culminates in Corey’s reclaiming of a repressed inner self.
Set to schmaltzy music, the scene includes an actual shot of a clock winding back time to instigate a flashback and features dual vocal tracks (voices of their childhood selves overlapping with their adolescent selves) to really run its point into the ground. The film dangerously overstates things so that an all too obvious twist ending can only inspire indifference whereas it’s clearly swinging for emotional upset.
The final ten minutes or so, in which dialogue (for the most part) falls blissfully by the wayside, illustrate all Boys In the Trees ever needed to do to tug at the heartstrings was put a sock in it and let the images speak for themselves.