The woods that abut the house teen James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee) shares with his widowed mother Abigail (Virginia Madsen) represent in a literal way the wilderness in the title of Michael Johnson’s tale of a boy coming to terms with the death of his father; but while he traipses through the forest, it’s the figurative wilderness in James’ mind and memory through which the boy must find his way. That’s the essence of “All the Wilderness” (formerly titled “The Wilderness of James”), a coming-of-age story that covers familiar terrain in a decent but not terribly compelling fashion.
The exact circumstances of the death of James’ father aren’t revealed until fairly late in Johnson’s screenplay, but clearly they’ve affected the young man deeply. He wanders aimlessly, drawing quite nice sketches in a notebook as he goes—but they’re always of dead things. Occasionally he offers predictions about when people are going to die—a practice that leads the local bully to slug him when James says the guy’s going to croak in little over a year. And James’ visits to a shrink, Dr. Pembry (Danny De Vito, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) are of little help, since the boy is uncommunicative and the counselor’s demeanor is so understated that he comes across as barely interested, even though during one session he’ll admit he knew the dead man.
Of greater help are two chance meetings James has. The first is with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), another of the psychiatrist’s clients, who befriends the boy after a rather strained beginning. The other is with Harmon (Evan Ross), a street kid who lives in a skateboarders’ den, where he writes and records music. Harmon encourages James to loosen up and the youngster responds in a way he’s unable to with the adults in his life, though Abigail certainly wouldn’t approve of her son’s trying pot and picking up a weapon. James’ nocturnal excursions to hang with Val and Harmon go nicely until he comes upon them getting closer than he likes, which sets off his jealous side.
At this point Johnson could easily have taken the story in a conventionally melodramatic direction, but happily he resists that choice, opting instead to continue the film’s quiet, ruminative approach. There’s a revelation about the death of James’ father that is frankly less than surprising, and some sudden decisions that the boy makes about his life—he chooses to accept an invitation to enter a school for the gifted that he’d previously resisted, for instance—that suggest he’s finally found his way out of the darkness and is willing to move forward again. That makes for an ending that doesn’t shake the rafters—and frankly the symmetrical return to the opening scene has a shopworn feel—but it’s of a piece with Johnson’s overall scheme, which prefers atmospherics to action.
Smit-McPhee anchors the film with a sensitive, subtle turn as the gangly protagonist, and though Madsen and DeVito are underused, both Ross and Fuhrman register nicely. DP Adam Newport-Berra captures the Oregon locations well, especially in the scenes of James’ nighttime excursions through the Portland streets. Other technical credits are adequate, and the music score by Jonsi and Alex Somers add mood to the mix.
“All the Wilderness” is a gentle, understated but only fitfully affecting tale of a teen’s psychological turmoil. But even at a mere 76 minutes, it does drag, and its narrative drowsiness might lead a viewer to wish for a bit more energy in the telling. In sum, a promising first feature, but not an overwhelming debut.