On Halloween 1997, two estranged teen skaters embark on a surreal journey through their memories, dreams and fears.
It’s easy to see why film-makers – especially Australian ones - are drawn to coming-of-age stories. They’re as much about mood as they are concrete events, a sense of time passing and things slipping away. But that vagueness can be a curse as well as a blessing; unless a director keeps their focus tight, they can end up with a film that’s little more than wistful longing, a series of hollow images that hint at moving on without having much of anything to say. Boys in the Trees has the wistful longing and memorable images down pat; the story itself is on slightly shakier ground.
It’s 1997, and Halloween in the Australian suburbs is a massive deal (it’s a fantasy film – go with it). Corey (Toby Wallace) is one of his school’s cool skater clique, but as always, being in with the in crowd comes at a price. Here it’s two-fold: he has to deal with gleeful bully and gang leader Jango (Justin Holborrow) and he has to go along with Jango’s abuse of his childhood best friend, the diminutive Jonah (Gulliver McGrath). It’s a situation set to come to a head on this boozy night where the costumed teens can let their inner selves out, and when Corey finds himself promising to walk Jonah home through streets filled with costumed creatures their past is set to haunt them in more than just a metaphorical way.
"This is a spot-on look at the twilight world of your late teens"
Director Nicholas Verso has built his career through work in television and a string of short films (including 2014’s The Last Time I Saw Richard, which this expands on). It’s no surprise then that this is remarkably visually assured. Boys in the Trees is one of the more impressive-looking Australian films out there, in a year which has already seen the endlessly visually inventive (and thematically similar) Girl Asleep. The imagery here is more grounded than in that film though: this is a spot-on look at the twilight world of your late teens, full of endless hanging around waiting for something to happen than never quite does – until it does and suddenly you’re an adult and things are never the same again.
While Verso is a master when it comes to nailing teen angst through sinister imagery - the horror aspect is fairly underplayed for the most part - and music video style (combined with an evocative late '90s soundtrack), story-wise this wanders almost as much as its teen protagonists. It’s close to two hours when a run time around 90 minutes would have better suited the thin story. It makes sense that a film about not wanting to let go of the past would be drawn out, but there are times here where getting on with things definitely feels like the way to go.
Verso does a great job with the teen performances, and the cast all come off as believable despite dialogue that at times tends towards the obvious. If there’s a weak point here it’s the character of Jonah. McGrath makes his painful yearning for connection with Corey obvious; his dialogue, packed with cryptic, ominous comments (“You can’t have a good story without a dead body”, “Sometimes you have to pull back a piece of reality when it gets in the way”) goes some way towards explaining the bullies torment of him.
How much you’ll get out of this depends a lot on whether you’re along for the ride or waiting for the destination. Verso packs his film with memorable moments – maybe too many; some, like a moving but incongruous salute to the Mexican Day of the Dead towards the end, barely seem to belong here at all – but often they feel like they’re simply stacked one atop the next without any dramatic drive or progression. But that’s how being a teen feels like sometimes. It’s just one thing after another until suddenly it’s over and you find yourself somewhere new.
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