Back Roads – the film that keeps on giving (far, far too much)

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By Marta Macedo, Third Year, Film and Television

Alex Pettyfer’s directorial debut Back Roads doesn’t really know what to do with all of its ambition.

Adapted from a Tawni O’Dell novel of the same title, with a narrative rooted in familial dysfunction, the film follows Harley (Alex Pettyfer - yes, he also stars in the film) who is in his early twenties, left to care for his three younger sisters after their mother is imprisoned for the murder of their father.

Harley, whose hopes and plans have been thrown out the window as a consequence of someone else’s actions, sees a whole set of unwanted responsibilities fall on his lap. The façade of practicality he puts on would have made for a far more engaging plot-line had Pettyfer’s performance not been so one-note throughout the film’s 101-minutes.

Alex Pettyfer, Hala Finley and Chiara Aurelia in Back Roads (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb / Back Roads Production Limited

What could have easily been a family drama in the same vein as August: Osage County (2013), Back Roads quickly slips into melodrama through a combination of inconsistent pacing, single-trait characterisation of every family member and a very Harley-centric perspective carried out for the film’s entirety. The rest of the cast exist as satellites within the narrative, furthering his storyline by adding theirs onto it without receiving the development their own narratives warrant.

In the nuclear family, Amber (Nicola Peltz) is the only character an audience might feel they know, to some extent, by the end of the film. The oldest of the sisters, she is the embodiment of teenage rebellion: her every word, look and tilt of the head are a provocation.

This film ticks all the boxes for boiling internal conflict and yet all we seem to get out of it are a couple of tears streaming down Alex Pettyfer’s face

Though the film’s plot revolves in a not-so-insignificant way around Misty (Chiara Aurelia), her screen time amounts to a grand total of (maybe) four minutes. By the time the credits have started rolling, I could tell you she was the second youngest of the family, has dark hair and wears mostly blue tops – a useful insight, I’m sure.

Even Jody’s (Hala Finley) childish ingenuity falls short – rather than injecting into the film a fresher perspective, seeing it unravel through the eyes of a child, it all feels too tacked on, just more superficial dialogue that is meant to make you feel something but, in the end, never really does.

Nicola Peltz in Back Roads (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb / Back Roads Production Limited

This film touches on so many different, important subjects it becomes hard to know which one to devote your attention to. Perhaps that’s what happened during production – it certainly feels like it.

From child abuse and its subsequent coping mechanisms, to delusions, extra marital affairs, art, gender stereotypes, counselling and the claustrophobia of a rural town lost in the ‘90s, it appears this film ticks all the boxes for boiling internal conflict and yet all we seem to get out of it are a couple of tears streaming down Alex Pettyfer’s face every five minutes as his breathing becomes worryingly irregular.

Though visually and soundtrack-wise no major faults jump out; in much the same way none of it strikes me as particularly exciting either. Its biggest shame is indeed its total waste of an opportunity to delve into the motivations of its array of characters, be that Jennifer Morrison’s bored housewife or June Carryl’s viewpoint as the family’s counsellor in the aftermath of their mother’s incarceration.

Alex Pettyfer in Back Roads (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb / Back Roads Production Limited

On a final note, for a film that relies so unyieldingly on heavy-handed emotion, you’d think they would have spent some time searching for more natural-looking on-screen criers.

It may be old school but try spraying some pepper directly in your eyes next time – it might look more convincing.

Featured: IMDb / Back Roads Production Limited


Have you seen Back Roads? What do you think? Let us know!

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