You can’t help but wonder what might have been. Adrian Lyne was originally earmarked to direct Back Roads. He still has a writing credit, along with Tawni O’Dell, author of the original 1999 novel, but the director’s job went to first timer Alex Pettyfer. Andrew Garfield was slated to play the main role, but Pettyfer was cast instead. It’s a film with his name all over it.
He’s taken on a powerful story. Harley (Pettyfer) is stuck in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, looking after his three sisters. Their mother Bonnie (Juliette Lewis) is in prison for killing their father and all the pressures of having to be the adult of the family is taking its toll on the young man. Solace in the shape of a married neighbour turns out not to be solution, but simmering under the surface are the real reasons for his problems – family secrets that he cannot bear to face and which he fears will repeat themselves.
And those secrets keep being revealed with such monotonous regularity that they start to lose their impact far earlier than they should. They’re all progressively shocking, but there’s so many it’s hard for the audience not to become numb to what unfolds in front of them. They’re also couched in a narrative full of twists that regularly descends into the outlandish, the occasional smirk is a real temptation. That we resist is down to the actors and their attempts to find the truth in the story, with Pettyfer proving to be a solid leading man while on double duty.
As a director, he’s hampered by the script, one with dialogue so unconvincing that the cast are talking at, not to, each other. The overriding tone is of high melodrama – too high, because the key scenes are over the top and some of the more mundane ones fall into a similar trap. The structure doesn’t help either, with many of the family secrets revealed in the counselling sessions between Harley and therapist (June Carryl) which regularly punctuate the film. After one or two of them, you know exactly what’s coming.
He does, however, have a good eye for framing a shot and his use of sound effectively creates atmosphere but, on the evidence of this, his own distinctive directorial style has yet to emerge. That such a powerful story – we’re presented with the reality behind it in the final captions – is presented in such an overwrought manner is disappointing. In more experienced or distinctive hands, it could have been a different matter. As it stands, it’s hard to care as much as you know you should.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 18 | Studio Soho Distribution | Digital, 6 July 2020 | Dir. Alex Pettyfer | Alex Pettyfer, Juliette Lewis, June Carryl, Nicola Peltz, Jennifer Morrison