The Wilderness of James marks an impressive feature debut for Michael Johnson, functioning as a thoughtful, engrossing character piece that allows you to leave your own troubles behind to experience, understand and care about someone else’s, and that quality in itself is refreshing. Hit the jump for my full review of The Wilderness of James from the SXSW Film Festival.
Months after his father’s passing, Abigail Charm (Virginia Madsen) decides that her son isn’t socially adjusting well so decides to send him to a therapist (Danny DeVito). James (Kodi Smit-McPhee) does have problems that need addressing, but clinical help isn’t doing the trick. However, in the midst of this gloomy haze, James does manage to find some solace in two new friends, another patient at the clinic, Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), and someone he meets on the street, Harmon (Evan Ross).
The Wilderness of James is a tough one to sum up because it isn’t a polished narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle and end, but rather a genuine slice of life. The film moves to a very natural beat, and that beat is very much dictated by the heart of the piece – James.
Smit-McPhee is an anomaly. There’s something somewhat haunting about his work, especially when James insists that he knows when certain people will die, yet there’s also something undeniably alluring and even appealing about him as well. James is the antithesis of a stereotypical character. He’s clearly not the most popular kid in town, but there’s so much more to him than that. He loves music, the wild and his mother, even though he’s having a hard time expressing it. It’s also very evident that James is absolutely buried in remorse and it’s Smit-McPhee and Johnson’s ability to make you understand and also feel that, that makes The Wilderness of James such an effective character piece.
Thanks to a highly appropriate shot selection, spot-on editing that offers up just the right amount of reaction shots, and a slew of authentic performances, you’re firmly in James’ head all the way through. It’s a confusing place and James’ thoughts often read as poetry, which could require a double take to firmly understand, but that’s part of what makes the film such an immersive experience. From the moment Johnson establishes that connection between James and the viewer, it’s almost instinctual to try to figure out what’s wrong with him and that gives the film an interactive quality.
James rarely explains his motivation. In fact, he rarely understands why he does certain things to begin with, but Smit-McPhee manages to construct a remarkably comprehensive character via reactions alone. Johnson uses exposition sparingly in his script so understanding James’ feelings is highly reliant on Smit-McPhee’s ability to convey them, and he does so quite well. From there, the characters around James provide even more context.
DeVito is a bit of a throwaway as the therapist. There is an attempt at turning him into a unique source of help, but rather than convince the viewer that there’s a method to his madness, the fact that he spends most of his session with James sanding handmade chess pieces comes across exactly how James perceives it, as though he’s not even trying to do his job. Madsen finds more success as the sole other adult character in the film, James’ mother. She doesn’t get much screen time, but the little she does is used well, establishing a believable connection with Smit-McPhee and also offering a much-needed second opinion on his condition, especially considering DeVito’s character never offers one.
This is James’ story, but he’s not in a sound state of mind and that is reflected through a variety of fantastical story components making it vital for supporting characters to ground the film. Fuhrman is especially effective in this respect because she’s one of the first people we see interact with James other than his mother. Val’s got quirks of her own, but she appears far more stable than James so watching her interact with him adds a pivotal layer to the character, and then Harmon takes it from there. Ross is downright mesmerizing from the moment he steps on screen. His voice, his style, charm and kindness all combine to make him a very appealing person, making you understand why James is drawn to him. After the initial introduction, Harmon and James form a genuine friendship that goes through a major evolution and it directly reflects and, in turn, enhances James’ personal transformation.
The Wilderness of James is a no-frills film that offers you the opportunity to leave your reality behind and get a taste of someone else’s. There’s no riveting build or quick fixes, just a heartfelt, honest representation of one young man’s tough times and whether or not you’re able to directly relate to his issues, James’ experience actually could inspire you to take a fresh approach to your own.
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