A death in the family is always unsettling, which may explain why adolescent James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose father has just died, runs from imaginary(?) hooded creatures and has taken to telling people the dates of their own eventual deaths.
If that sounds insufferably quirky, then you’re not giving All the Wilderness, Michael Johnson’s thoughtful debut, enough credit. Certainly our Chopin-listening, Carl Sandburg–reading (the poet’s “Wilderness” provides both inspiration and backdrop for the film) protagonist has the potential for maximum melodrama.
Unfortunately, James’s behavior only serves to agitate mom Abigail (Virginia Madsen), while proving largely indecipherable to his therapist Dr. Pembry (a perfunctory Danny DeVito), both of whom are nonetheless concerned by his inability to process his loss.
Writer-director Johnson gets off to something of a shaky start in his first film, relying heavily on shots of sun-dappled trees and elegiac voiceover best described as “Diet Malick.” But as events unfold and James explores the heretofore unfamiliar urban jungle, Johnson takes a surer hand. This is most evident when he’s bringing the nighttime cityscape (Portland, Oregon) to life, courtesy of James’s new tour guide, street composer Harmon (Evan Ross). And in spite of the tatty “coming of age” familiarity, Johnson’s vision seems fresh and vibrant.
Besides, some experiences are universal no matter what the decade, including James’s Last American Virgin moment, when he spies Harmon with erstwhile girlfriend Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), where Smit-McPhee precisely captures the vulnerability and confusion of youth. Johnson’s film suggests that while the kids may not always be all right, in most cases they do end up finding their way home.