“Boys in the Trees” is an Australian coming of age tale set in the grunge influenced late 90s suburban Victoria, where parents let you roam free and there wasn’t something like the internet distracting you from getting up to mischief. It’s that analog time and digital saplings are beginning to sprout; the world’s getting smaller. “Boys in the Trees” opens like a dreamy teenage noir. The great film critic Roger Ebert provided the useful definition that noir films are often about characters are immersed with guilt. In opening moments of the film Corey (Toby Wallace) is skating along a foot path, weaving his board through a ‘tick or treaters’ when he receives a haunting warning from a random kid about the “violent delights having violent ends.” We’re almost immediately transported to a sun drenched skate park, Corey is documenting their time in the park snapping black and white photos; one in particular of Jonah (Gulliver McGrath) after being punched in the face by group leader Jango (Justin Holborow) for bumping into him. These are the best of times, but it feels like the worst of times are in store.
This is the grunge tinged 90s that I lived through. The group of lads are in their final year of high school about to begin their exam period and decide to use Halloween as an opportunity to party, prank and let their hair down. Corey, the budding photographer, develops the snap of the sorry bloodied face of Jonah in his own darkroom (there are definitely people asking; WTF is a ‘darkroom'). Jango wants to copy it and plaster it around town during their hijinks. Corey’s compassion reveals that they were friends in an earlier time.
That’s the light and darkness of the film. Questionably innocent and unsupervised fun; living that seminal night of your adolescent years. This is contrasted though by giving an eerie haunting quality to that strange but common phenomena as kids where you’re inseparable during your primary school years but in high school you walk past each other in the halls like strangers. Corey is a dreamer, optimistic that there’s more in the world than the suburbs has to offer; Jango wants to continue his life in manner he’s living it; which separates them. Corey seeks out Jonah and is drawn into a childhood game to map out their night. They start finding places that they travelled as kids and conjuring the spirits and ghosts of their imagination once again. All the while, hot on their tales, are Jango and his merry men, slighted at Corey’s snubbing.
It’s a collision of that coming of age and haunting manifestation of the spiritual and beastly interior of the the world around them. In some ways the way the story unfolds, they’re at odds with one another. While you’re hanging out by fire-light, having inane conversation and dabbling in some weed, or alcohol stolen from a parent’s liquor cabinet, debut filmmaker Nicholas Verso immerses you in an authentic and sense memory vision of the time. As you’re drawn into the less tangible allegorical realm, it feels like a more sophisticated voice is manipulating the characters. By the fire, their inanity is so pure and right on; when Jonah is conjuring the tales of ghostly woe around them you get that “Dawson’s Creek” déjà vu and feel like saying ‘how do these teenagers talks like this?’
Verso’s vision of 90s teenage life is one of an unsupervised world. Adults are lulled into a slumber by television; in a sense creating the space for the occupants of this other realm to surface. Drain’s become portals to ghosts, stuck in purgatory. Footbridges become entry points to journeys. Halloween is an unnatural holiday here in Australia, so Verso uses fairytale games, and ’Day of the Dead’ imagery add additional texture.
In the lead is Wallace as Corey is at his best when he’s wordlessly reacting to the stout work of the supporting cast. Gulliver McGrath’s Jonah looks (mostly intentionally) like a creepier Elliot from “E.T” and is given the most unnatural job of delivering the more heady dialogue. Mitzi Ruhlmann’s Romany is the badass young lady who delivers perhaps the single most poignant moment of the film; explaining a young woman’s seamless transition to adulthood; waiting idly by the boys stuck in stages of arrested development. Justin Holborow’s Jango is riddled with insecurity, uncomfortable with platonic love and so intent of being tough that he has to deflate others with homophobic slurs. Holborow does a great job of showing the pressure of being friends with Jango; but also what’s endearing beneath the bravado.
“Boys in the Trees” is ambitious, inventive and has its eyes set on being an Australian answer to Rian Johnson’s “Brick” or Greg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin.” While the relationship between the film’s two purposes feels rocky at times; it’ll haunt you like a photograph of an old friend that you loved and lost.
Directed by: Nicholas Verso
Written by: Nicholas Verso
Toby Wallace ... Corey
Gulliver McGrath ... Jonah
Mitzi Ruhlmann ... Romany
Justin Holborow ... Jango
Henry Reimer Meaney ... Tweedledee Gromit
Jayden Lugg ... Tweedledum Gromit
Tom Russell ... Grunge Rocker Gromit
Patrick Gilbert ... Spiky Gromit