2018, NR, 101 min. Directed by Alex Pettyfer. Starring Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Nicola Peltz, Chiara Aurelia, Juliette Lewis.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 7, 2018
With starring roles in Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and I Am Number Four under his belt, it’s safe to say Alex Pettyfer is no stranger to cinematic adaptations of bestselling books. Then again, it’s safe to say Tawni O’Dell’s debut novel Back Roads isn’t exactly cut from the same cloth as his other young adult roles.
Ever since the violent death of his father at the hands of his mother, Harley (Pettyfer) has been forced to put his life on hold to look after his three younger sisters. It’s not a responsibility he carries well; Harley has little aptitude for parenthood and spends most of his time openly bitter about the direction his life has turned. So when a local housewife (House alumna Morrison) catches his eye, he feels he might finally be owed a chance at happiness, at least until his sexual encounters with her bring back a flood of unwanted memories about his own abusive childhood.
Back in 2000, O’Dell’s novel was praised for its haunting depiction of generational trauma; The New York Times described the story, favorably, as capturing the “deep-rooted legacy of pain and perversion” of its central family. But whereas the novel was praised for getting inside the mind of its central character, Pettyfer’s film often succumbs to the novel’s most lurid instincts. Harley is obsessed with sex – more accurately, his lack of it – and his interactions with the women around him skew those relationships into bouts of objectification and obsession. Back Roads’ tone would be tricky to balance under the best of circumstances, but the film is often uncertain how to eroticize its characters in the eyes of Harley without creating the same effect on the audience (or vice versa), a major red flag for a story about this kind of trauma.
That being said, if you and the film find yourself on the same wavelength, there is a fair amount here to like. Like many actors moving behind the camera, Pettyfer may err a bit too much on the side of loud performances, but cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Witch) adds some much-needed desperation to these characterizations through his unsentimental depiction of rural Pennsylvania. The cast – especially its youngest actors – also handle themselves with aplomb, showing real thoughtfulness with some inherently tricky material. Back Roads may ultimately work better as a book than a movie, but you can’t accuse this cast and crew of mailing this movie in.