BOYS IN THE TREES, Australia, 2016. Starring Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath, Mitzi Ruhlmann, Justin Holborow. Directed by Nicholas Verso. 112 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, coarse language, sexual references, drug use).
The setting is 1997. It is Halloween.
This story of teenagers in the Australian suburbs becomes more impressive as it unfolds. At first, it looks like a typical enough presentation of youngsters, quite an amount of skateboarding, some showing off, a particularly unpleasant episode of bullying, and young males mouthing off in obnoxious ways. The males then all get dressed up in Halloween costumes, many as predatory animals with comments akin – and it is surprising, in retrospect, to see such elaborate details of Halloween behaviour at that time.
But soon the film becomes much more introspective. The central character is Corey, who literally runs with the pack, but who separates himself off at times because of his skill with his camera, intending to go to New York with a scholarship to continue photography courses, despite the objections of his father. The victim of the bullying is Jonah, looking younger, short in height, a skateboarder but obviously used to being pushed around and humiliated. Corey takes his photo and later, Jango, the dominating leader of the pack, photocopies the photo and places it prominently in the streets and in the parks.
Corey is challenged by Romany, who also wants to get out of the place, allows herself to be partly trapped with the group but goes off to work on a late shift. As Corey wanders off from the group, he encounters Jonah at the skateboard rink. Jonah falls and hurts his head, a possible concussion, and asks Corey to walk home with him as something of an apology.
And here the film moves from Corey’s introspection to a mysterious world of imagination and fantasy, combining it with the realism of the walk home, the Halloween behaviour, Corey going to see Romany at the shop, Jango leading his troop making a mess of the shop, and Corey clashing with Jango and separating off, still accompanying Jonah.
It emerges that the two boys have a past friendship but that Corey betrayed Jonah and abandoned him. To relive something of the past, going back into their memories, of Jonah’s mother dying – and their encounter of Hispanic group in a local costume commemorating a death and singing plaintively, a little girl who emerges from a huge open drain exit and a mysterious man dressed in white.
The boys are particularly convincing, Toby Wallace emerging from being a child actor as Corey; Gulliver McGrath who has worked for Steven Spielberg in Lincoln and Martin Scorsese in Hugo, bringing quite some vulnerability to Jonah; and Justin Holobrow completely believable as the pier-pressuring Jango. Mitzi Ruhlmann is Romany.
The film was made in Adelaide by former DJ, Nicholas Verso, who has also made a number of short films. This film should be more than a calling card for his career as a director. Early in the year, another film came from Adelaide, Girl Asleep. This was also the story of teenagers, this time set in the 70s, focusing on a teenage girl blending the realism of her school and family story with quite an excursion into a world of fantasy. The two films could be seen as striking companion pieces.
Boys in the Trees (who seem to have their head in the trees, refusing to grow up, then literally climbing trees with the potential for a fall) could be a challenge to its target audience but also makes quite an impact on an older audience.
Mushroom Films Released 20th October
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.