Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicholas Verso
Stars: Toby Wallace, Justin Holobrow, Gullver McGrath, Mitzi Ruhlmann.
Boys In The Trees is another local coming of age story that joins a growing number of recent Australian films exploring familiar themes of the pain of growing up, friendship, angst, romance, the loss of innocence, memory. However, this one is suffused with a surreal quality, quirky touches and an unsettling supernatural element. It has been described as The Lost Boys meets Donnie Darko, a rather apt description.
It is set in suburban Adelaide on Halloween night in 1997. The film follows Corey (played by Toby Wallace, from Galore, etc) as he hangs around with his skater friends, led by the bullying bogan Jango (Justin Holborow). Corey is a more sensitive teen and a keen photographer and is reassessing his direction in life. He has set his sights on going to New York to further his ambition, a decision that doesn’t sit well with Jango, who has no idea of what his future holds.
During the night, while Jango and his gang, known as gromits, egg houses and have fun at the local skate park, they cross paths with Jonah (Gulliver McGrath, who has worked with the likes of Spielberg, Burton and Scorsese), a loner and outsider who has been mercilessly bullied throughout school by Jango and his destructive cronies. But when they were younger Corey and Jonah used to be best friends, almost inseparable, as they went on adventures together. But something happened that drove them apart.
On this night, Corey reluctantly agrees to walk Jonah home out of a strong sense of guilt, and is forced to confront the demons of his past and comes to terms with his betrayal of that friendship. The journey through the night is filled with metaphorical monsters and painful revelations. There is also a vaguely homoerotic nature to the relationship between Corey and Jonah.
Boys In The Trees is the feature film debut for former DJ turned filmmaker Nicholas Verso, who has worked on numerous television shows like Conspiracy 365, Nowhere Boys, and has directed a number of well received short films, including 2014’s The Last Time I Saw Richard. His films often deal with troubled teens and issues of sexuality and identity, themes that surface again in Boys In The Trees. He has a unique and deeply personal take on the coming of age genre. Verso gives the film an air of melancholy and nostalgia and touches of introspection. It also has a darker tone and gritty aesthetic that is influenced by the likes of Richard Kelly rather than John Hughes. But it does tend to meander a little in the middle and loses focus for a while, and Verso goes in for some heavy handed symbolism. And some of the dialogue is a little cryptic and obtuse.
The film was set in 1997 because Verso believes that that was one of the last times that teenagers had that sense of innocence and freedom, when they were able to be alone in the night. This was time before mobile phones, the internet and social media began to dominate their lives. The film is steeped in nostalgia for the 90s with lots of cultural references and iconic touchstones, and the action is even complemented by a great soundtrack of 90s rock that will resonate with a certain demographic who grew up during that period.
Verso draws nice performances from his young cast. Rising young star Wallace gives a nuanced and quite mature and insightful performance as Corey, who hides his own insecurities and doubts beneath a cynical outlook. Mitzi Ruhlmann (from The Code, etc) is also good as Romany, the goth girl who is also keen to leave this small town for something bigger and more exciting, and she has big dreams and shares a similar outlook to Corey. McGrath brings a vulnerability to his performance as Jonah, while Holobrow brings some nuance to his performance as the insecure Jango and makes him more than just a one dimensional bully.
Boys In The Trees is a film of great ambition, and, although not entirely successful, Verso must get kudos for trying. The film is certainly stylish with lots of visual flourishes and quirky surreal touches that set it apart from a lot of other local coming of age tales. Much of the film takes place at night, and there is some eerie and atmospheric cinematography from Marden Dean, who shot the evocative and haunting Fell.
The trailer for Boys In The Trees is a little misleading, and makes it seem more like an 80s John Carpenter-styled horror movie rather than the coming of age tale that it is.