The way things have gone this year, nothing says ‘2020’ more than a movie originally released 2018 finally deciding to make its way over to the UK in the form of an online offering. I’m not sure why it has taken Alex Pettyfer’s directorial debut so long to make the jump across the Atlantic Ocean, but I’m not complaining, because on first glance it looked like it might be a decent addition to my quarantine collection. No huge hype, but I would be remiss to ignore that it picked up Best Feature at the Rhode Island International Film Festival!
Set in the mid 1990s, Back Roads tells the story of Harley Altmyer (Alex Pettyfer), a young man who is tasked with bringing up his three sisters after his mother (Juliette Lewis) is imprisoned for the murder of his father. With an immense amount of past trauma clouding his emotional stability and the early spark of a mutual attraction with a married neighbour (Jennifer Morrison), Harley struggles with the conflict between his obligations to his young sisters and his need for freedom and independence.
On the whole, Back Roads offers the kind of juicy drama that I tend to eat right up. Partial comparisons can be made to films like The Paperboy or Killer Joe, in the sort of grimy, tense, claustrophobic tone that is set from the off. It’s a gritty family drama that throws pretty much everything at the audience, leaving no stone unturned in terms of plot twists and thematic tropes, and in the end that high volume of content proves to be detrimental to the overall quality of the picture.
There are some really evocative and enthralling Southern Gothic style elements at play in the narrative, but the sheer amount of reveal upon reveal that occurs in the final third of the film turns it from being dark and shocking into something that you can’t help but slightly roll your eyes at. There is an over the top nature in the second hand of Back Roads that takes away from the core seriousness of the story, everything is played with complete seriousness, but the directions that the plot takes verge on taking it into parody territory. What was needed to maintain the real grit and realism of the opening stages was a little restraint in the story telling, but for me at least, Back Roads just tries to fit too much drama into its narrative.
As central star and director, Alex Pettyfer does a perfectly fine job in both roles. Harley Altmyer is one of those quintessential ‘lost potential’ characters, forced to give up his college ambitions to keep his quickly growing, and quickly falling apart, family together. Pettyfer’s performance is one of those stoic, emotionally repressed, weight of the world on your shoulders type of deals, and he pulls it off well. His work behind the camera is good if not completely remarkable, he definitely comes out of his feature debut with some credit.
Interestingly, the rest of the film is dominated by girls and women, which further evokes that classic kind of Southern Gothic tone in my mind. Juliette Lewis makes an impact in the brief scenes she has as Harley’s mother Bonnie, successfully playing a character that has a lot to say but very little screen time to say it. Jennifer Morrison is interesting as Callie Mercer, the married neighbour with whom Harley strikes a physical connection. She’s an actress that I always enjoy watching, and she doesn’t disappoint here in a role that becomes more and more integral as the narrative progresses.
As Harley’s oldest and most outwardly troubled sister Amber, Nicola Peltz wrestles with playing a character who is probably the most cliched and trope laden of the bunch. On balance, Peltz does a good job in the role, but Amber is ultimately at the centre of many of the plot elements that can be accused of being over the top, a tough job for the actress to try to navigate without crossing the line into parody or caricature. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are no bad performances here, just some borderline bad characters.
Overall, Back Roads is a good gritty drama to get your teeth stuck into, but don’t come here looking for understated or subtle themes because you sure ain’t gonna get them. It’s a story that doesn’t hold back in its approach to family tragedy and dark secrets, and the cast is definitely a strong and enjoyable one. Was it worth waiting two years for from US to UK? No. But that’s fine, because I had never heard of it until last week!