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‘Back Roads’: Film Review

Alex Pettyfer makes his directorial debut with this gritty drama in which he plays a young man caring for his three younger sisters after a family tragedy.

Alex Pettyfer’s directorial debut demonstrates just how much the actor is intent on recalibrating his career. Having achieved fame through such forgettable trivialities as Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and I Am Number Four, the actor now seeks out challenging material on the order of Tawni O’Dell’s 2010 novel about a young man coping with sordid family secrets in rural Pennsylvania. While Back Roads doesn’t live up to its considerable dramatic and thematic ambitions, it provides a strong opportunity for its filmmaker/star to stretch his dramatic muscles in the lead role.

Co-scripted by novelist O’Dell and Adrian Lyne (the director’s first feature writing credit), the 1990s-set film revolves around Harley (Pettyfer), who’s desperately attempting to care for his three younger sisters while their mother (Juliette Lewis, excellent) serves a prison sentence for murdering their father. Harley, who works nights in a grocery store, has plenty of responsibility on his hands. Especially since his oldest sister, 16-year-old Amber (Nicola Peltz, Bates Motel), has become rebellious and promiscuous. Younger siblings Misty (Chiara Aurelia) and Jody (Hala Finley) try to make the best of their situation, but conflict has become a daily part of their lives.

That Harley’s relationship with his murderous mother is strained, to say the least, becomes immediately apparent in an early scene in which he visits her in prison. The first thing he says to her is to ask matter-of-factly, “Where do we keep the extra light bulbs?”

Attempting to fill the emotional void in his life, Harley becomes fixated on Callie (Jennifer Morrison), a married older neighbor with whom he begins a passionate affair. Callie is clearly thrilled by the attention of the younger man, but soon becomes unnerved by Harley’s recklessness in initiating their sexual liaisons.

We already know that things are not going to turn out well by the story’s framing device. The pic begins with a a bloodied Harley being interrogated by a sheriff (Robert Patrick) about why he murdered the woman with whom he had been having an affair. The opening sets the foreboding tone for the rest of the proceedings marked by unrelenting gloom. The storyline eventually lurches into gothic territory with revelations about sexual abuse and the exact nature of the father’s death.    

Pettyfer isn’t fully successful in preventing the material from being alternately tedious and sensationalistic. He’s most successful with the plotline involving the sexual affair, with the characters’ physical and emotional hunger vividly conveyed. Morrison delivers a well-modulated turn as the dissatisfied housewife who ventures into an affair that proves more than she bargained for. And Pettyfer is equally effective in the sort of role that would have suited a young Montgomery Clift. Unfortunately, his subtlety isn’t always matched by the script, which includes several scenes depicting Harley’s therapy sessions with a social worker (June Carryl) that have the contrived feel of actors’ exercises.

Back Roads ultimately goes down more narrative roads than necessary with its series of climactic revelations stretching both credulity and patience. But if offers many powerful moments along the way and marks a promising debut for its tyro filmmaker.  

Production companies: Upturn Productions, Infinity Media
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Juliette Lewis, Nicola Peltz, Robert Patrick, Chaira Aurelia, Hala Finley, June Carryl
Director: Alex Pettyfer
Screenwriters: Tawni O’Dell, Adrian Lyne
Producers: Michael Ohoven, Craig Robinson, Alex Pettyfer, Ashley Mansour, Jake Seal, Dan Spilo
Executive producers: Simon Wetton, Ben White, Palmer Murray, Ali Jazayeri, Amy Rodregue
Director of photography: Jarin Blaschke
Production designer: Margaux Rust
Editor: Kant Pan
Composer: John Hunter
Costume designer: Jayme Bohn
Casting: Mark Bennett

101 minutes

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