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The Chicago Critics Film Festival: Patricia Rozema’s ‘Into the Forest’

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Based on the debut novel of the same name by Jean Hegland, Into the Forest wedges immature feminism into its lush post-technological dystopia. Set on the vivid boundary between a cabin on the edge of town and some untouched woods, technology just a bit more advanced than ours flourishes then fails as mass power outages afflict the U.S. — and the cabin’s family.

The familial characters, consisting of a father (Callum Keith Rennie, lovably dorky) and two sisters (a great Ellen Page and a not-great Evan Rachel Wood) are briefly established before the world changes, having not-so-subtle conversations about their single character traits and setting up the inklings of a brief romance between Page and a non-descript bro played by Max Minghella. Eventually, it’s conveyed that the power is not coming back and the film slowly becomes The Walking Dead sans dead. The sisters must forage the foliage and tend their surprisingly well-stocked home in a strange survivalist scenario that doesn’t ask its characters to adapt, but benevolently bestows chance and coincidence at key intervals to keep the audience awake.

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There are good ideas here, interesting ideas, but their execution comes stilted, sloppy and slow. The film clocks in at 101 minutes but feels like a three-hour epic, slogging through the mundanity without communicating more than the basics about the leads. Wood plays a dancer who reiterates her close relationship with a deceased mother while Page is bookish. That’s all we get. For a feminist attempt to show two women leaning on each other, Into the Forest barely sketches them out. The faint scent of an idea lingers, and the concept of a post-tech society emphasizing the retention of what its inhabitants had before (either dance or the simple pursuit of knowledge) has potential, but like an idea-scented candle, it fails to deliver more than longings for the real thing.

This superficiality comes riddled with subtext, as writer/director Patricia Rozema tints the sisterly relationship as oddly romantic, each scene threatening to collapse into incest. One may not see sisters. Whether this is an intentional choice or not by Rozema, the narrative’s emphasis on their relationship never clicks and ends with dissonant weirdness that could be read as admirably radical if it was written better. A failure if intentional and poor direction if not.

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Like the worst episodes of a drama like Game of Thrones, or indeed The Walking Dead, things just happen to characters in this story. Causes beget no effects and conversations have no impact. Subplots and themes crop up only to slide off the boring core like rain off a beige umbrella. A quasi-mystical stump cave has the sort of backyard fantasy about it that could host an entire coming-of-age drama, yet it comes off as a weirdly contrived piece of nonsense in this otherwise realistic world.

A dystopic world isn’t hard to make, but it is hard to make believable. Into the Forest crafts a suitably vague and plausible incitement for society’s collapse, then wanders around looking for something to say. With uninteresting characters whose poor choices seem based in dramatic necessity rather than personal failings and hapless attempts at mature drama (including a childishly telegraphed rape with brutality that feels like an afterthought to the film), there’s no reason to watch this rather than one of the other entries into the post-apocalypse.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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