Film Review: Into the Forest

Centering on the survival of two sisters in the woods following a post-apocalyptic blackout, this story probably looked good on paper (and the film boasts its original elements), yet is ultimately not gripping onscreen.
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Moment to moment, Into The Forest is engaging, and its two stars (Ellen Page and Rachel Evan Wood) are superb; indeed, given the film’s hybrid genre—a feminist coming-of-age tale within the parameters of a post-apocalyptic universe—many of the necessary boxes can be checked off. Not least (and most essentially), the fact that the leading characters individually and in their relationship to each other do indeed evolve.  Still, in the end there’s something lacking in this two-hander. Perhaps the duo in question, Nell (Page) and big sis Eva (Wood), are just not that riveting to begin with.

Patricia Rozema’s loose adaptation of Jean Hegland’s 1998 novel—the original evoking Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a touch of Orwell—is set in the forest of Northern California (in the unspecified near-future), where the siblings (in their late teens and early 20s, respectively) are living with their widowed father (Callum Keith Rennie) in a well-appointed country cabin.

Eva, who has her sights set on a dancer’s career, spends her time in an on-site studio rehearsing for some upcoming audition that she has no shot of landing, but she persists; her fantasy life is self-sustaining and fulfilling. Younger sis Nell is the more mature of the two girls; she’s surely tougher but equally egocentric as she busies herself boning up for her SATs.

Abruptly and without explanation, they lose all electric power and it soon seems obvious that the blackout may be permanent. The lack of information and/or any backstory as to what’s happening and why sets the right dark tone. Its absence becomes an added ominous presence.

The family is forced to ration its dwindling supply of food and the use of a gas-operated generator. Still, the threesome is determined to maintain a degree of normalcy, and as circumstances grow increasingly dire the more they adhere to routine, most pointedly embodied in Eva’s ongoing effort to hone her performing technique (choreography by Crystal Pite) to the beat of a metronome. Admittedly, those dance snippets feel pretentious and off-putting, yet they also suggest just how deluded and infantile Eva is.

An already challenging existence takes a precipitous turn for the worse when Eva and Nell’s father is killed in a horrific freak accident. The two sisters are now totally isolated and aware of their own vulnerability; their hitherto bucolic setting isn’t. Still, there’s a missed opportunity here. Rozema (who is galaxies away from Mansfield Park, for which she is best known) could have made much more of their Edenic Garden morphing into an encroaching and sinister wilderness.

Two stick-figure men (one benign, one villainous) make brief appearances, largely serving as catalysts for the sisters’ personal growth and interdependence. There’s Nell’s boyfriend Eli (Max Minghella), who invites the two women to join him in escaping the woods. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Eva refuses to do so; and equally incredible, Nell departs with him, leaving Eva behind, though she returns shortly thereafter realizing she has a deeper commitment to her sister than her boyfriend. Stan (Michael Eklund) is the menacing male, a local store clerk whose savage (arguably predictable) actions are far more cataclysmic.

Eva and Nell’s survival demands an all-empowering bond between them as they shed their civilized skins and return to a more pagan existence that includes foraging for fruits and berries and later hunting animals. At the same time, storms and lightning have contributed to the demise of their home.

Unlike other doomsday film scenarios set in dystopian cities with casts of thousands, Into the Forest zeroes in on an intimate relationship in a forest primeval. It’s original, and that’s in its favor. So is the ambiguous ending. Depending on your viewpoint, the sisters’ actions may be interpreted as hopeful or hopeless. The overpowering trees and relentless brush and bramble will become either a devastating or healing force of nature, or both.

Despite all its good points, the film feels ho-hum. This reviewer wanted to identify with these women and care one way or the other, but didn’t and regrets it.

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