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Back Roads Movie Review

Back Roads Review

By Jim Dooley

Blunder Wheel

Alex Pettyfer has pedaled his modeling career and leading man roles in such under-publicized movies as “The Strange Ones” and “Endless Love” to a spot behind the wheel of “Back Roads,” as both director and lead actor.

The ride is a rough one, where Pettyfer’s direction is no match for his abysmal acting. The movie goes in circles, lacking either the spectacle to fly off the road like a “Flowers in the Attic”-styled, trash gem or the suspense and stylization to meet in the crossroads of Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters.” The film also fails to yield the cynical, tragicomic perspective to park us in the wasteland of Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” or the all-pistons firing of writing/directing/acting needed to carry us on a dark road trip of a cruel world, as Larry Clark’s “Kids” does.


With his mother (Juliette Lewis, “August:Osage County“) in the big house for murdering their abusive father, Harley (Pettyfer) has been forced into the role of breadwinner and head of the dysfunctional household. Harley is the eldest of four, followed by sisters Amber (Nicola Peltz), sixteen; Misty (Chiara Aurelia), twelve; and Jody (Hala Finley), six.

The plot rolls out like a gothic mystery. Along the way, we discover that Misty is the actual murderer of the patriarch and that Harley has repressed an ongoing sexual relationship initiated by his sister Amber. When Harley enters into an insecure, sexual relationship with a thirty-something neighbor, Callie (Jennifer Morrison), mother of Jody’s best friend, there are dire developments that aim to illustrate character-driven parallels but simply play as predictable.

As Harley, Pettyfer seems too old for the role. His acting just reads as “stiff.” Combined with his perfectly mussed hair and broad shoulders, his portrayal belies any attempt to present a character that is disheveled, vulnerable, immature, and broken. The predominantly female supporting cast are more compelling, but this is the Harley show, with Pettyfer taking up the lion’s share of the screen time.

At the end of the line, the film resolves into a black screen with statistics on child abuse, which feels at odds with how the confused aesthetic has been trending. There are storytelling decisions that may have been intended to create the gravitas needed for a PSA ending. Pettyfer as director attempts to put some distance between the audience and the subject matter with a framing device he repeats four times. In each, the main action moves outside of a frame, leaving the audience looking in, with the dialogue muffled or silenced. The two most important instances both use windows looking into prison visitation rooms.

In the first of the two, Harley has just accused his mother of abandoning him and preferring to be in prison. As he confronts her he faints. The camera cuts to a locked long shot that peers through the windows of the visitation room, his mother first running to her boy, then being thrown against the window and restrained for violating the protocols for visits.

In the second of the two, Harley’s therapist (June Carryl) pleads with Harley to tell the truth and exonerate himself. Harley confirms she no longer has a duty to visit him and walks out. Again, we cut to a fixed long shot, peering through windows that bifurcate the room, Harley exiting stage right as his doctor stays behind, her pleas resolving into screams and sobs we cannot hear.

Both scenes follow the classical dictum that the most extreme violence is best presented off-stage to heighten pathos. Dialogue cannot do justice to the reality of such abuse. But both come off more like cop outs.

While we would struggle to imagine what a mother or mother-stand-in could could say to such a tormented and trapped child, the trope is a dead end for either Lewis or Carryl to deliver performances that would drive home the horror in a visceral, personal way. The use of long instead of a medium shots moves us further from the action and pathos. While the scenes may attempt to prioritize tragedy over sadistic voyeurism, they serve instead as the safety rail from getting too close. In the end, these framing devices offer a weak break to the main thrust, which is gothic mystery. By the end of the ride, it just feels great to get out of your seat, stretch your legs, and opt to walk home.

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