Movie Review - The Strange Ones

The feature debut of filmmakers, Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, is an adaptation of their 2011 short film of the same name. The short film focused on a man in his mid-to-late twenties on the road with a teenage boy who's only 13 or 14. Their car breaks down and they walk to a nearby motel in upstate New York. The woman who runs the motel shows a bit of kindness and perhaps attraction to the man. The boy responds by telling the woman horrible things about the man, including that they have a sexual relationship, which would make him a pedophile. The short film ends with the woman watching the man and boy leave with the question of what is the relationship between the man and boy. This feature attempts to flesh out that relationship and provide more context to it, its origins and possibly its implications.

Radcliff and Wolkstein's short film was part of Boys on Film 7 - Bad Romance. Peccadillo Pictures is a British film distributor for LGBT cinema in the UK and abroad, which was founded in 2000. In 2009, Peccadillo Pictures began a DVD series or DVD anthology called Boys on Film, which is a compilation of short films. Each one is a collection of stories about boys and men dealing with same-sex attraction or same-sex relations. A couple of the shorts have gone and become feature-length. This one would be the third.

Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike and I Am Number Four) stars as Nick, a scruffy guy in his 20's who is taking a teenage boy on a road trip to a secluded cabin in the woods where he used to go as a little boy with his father. Ostensibly, this road trip is for hunting and camping, a vacation from regular life. However, given Nick's sketchy behavior and how anxious he gets around others it's clear that he is on the run from the law and doesn't have that much in resources to do so.

Given the opening shots and a news broadcast that's briefly shown, it becomes clear Nick is on the run from a murder and arson. The victim is identified as the boy's father. The question then becomes why was the father killed and what does Nick want with the boy. Otherwise, Nick exudes a gruff, masculine, woodsman-persona that perhaps masks a vulnerability or a love that can't be expressed any other way.

James Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car and Jessica Jones) also stars as Sam, the aforementioned teenage boy who has a very stoic nature to him and who can come across as very mature for his age. He's very sweet and polite in his initial interactions, but that too perhaps is a mask to hide vulnerabilities or emotions that he can't fully unleash. He refers to Nick as his brother, but that description belies how Sam has a very homoerotic gaze at Nick that he perhaps knows he shouldn't act upon but in a quiet moment in the back-seat of Nick's red station wagon, Sam can't help but attempt to touch the rugged hunk.

Before we see that moment and perhaps even after, the ambiguous relationship between Nick and Sam echoes an ambiguity that we got last year in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). That film started with this queer and at times intimate relationship between an older man and teenage boy that turns out to be more about guilt and retribution than this film, which is more about lust and abuse. Whereas Lanthimos had a cold and clinical feel to his film, Radcliff and Wolkstein are more earthy and naturalistic, not that surprising considering its setting.

That tone also makes this film somewhat comparable to the work of Terrence Malick. There is an air here that is very reminiscent of Badlands (1973). That film could be more blatant about its twisted romance. The romance here is no different and not that far off from the romance between the older guy and teen boy in Call Me By Your Name (2017). That 2017 film didn't explore any kind of violence or even any kind of legal consequence, which might make it less responsible than this one because this movie forces an examination of the relationship through legal channels.

Because Call Me By Your Name is more explicit, though not by much, and certainly more joyous, that kind of examination wasn't warranted, even though a lot of people had an issue with the age difference. The sex scenes between them weren't that graphic and could have been more, considering what it was. Here, the movie avoids depiction of sexuality, particularly between the two with the age difference. One reason is because unlike Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, Freedson-Jackson is an actual teenager and under 18. Having a naked Pettyfer on top of him like Armie Hammer was naked and on top of Chalamet might have been a step too far.

The filmmakers could have gone there, but they didn't and the trick of this movie is to question if the sexual relationship between them is even real. Like Lanthimos' film, there is a bit of magical realism here. The magical realism seemed to be a coping mechanism for trauma or both guys' harsh experiences. Unless it's just symbolic for psychopathy, it's not meant to be as accepted as in Lanthimos' film. It's meant to throw things off balance and provide a way out for the audience as it does the characters. It's similar to the ending of Sean Baker's The Florida Project (2017).

It's a form of escape, which I'm not sure benefits the audience or not. Whether or not we need the distance from the crime and from whom these people are shouldn't be the consideration. The film unspools a terrifying character study of two people with desires that stay out of view with goals and motivations that seem only about staying only slightly ahead of whatever justice will be done. Dispensing that justice quickly comes at a shock, but it cuts short whatever taboo could have been delved, though I suppose the filmmakers run the risk of indulging or condoning that taboo, if they decided to show the two boys consummate whatever love they seem to have for one another.

Even though the guys here aren't siblings because that would make this film about incest and draw comparisons to Flowers in the Attic (1987) or Harry and Max (2004), I did think of a road movie that did involve brothers. Recently, Soham Mehta's Run the Tide (2016) featured a good story and performances that were more straight-forward than this. This film is meant to be mysterious and vague or in some way circular. One can either embrace that circularity or not.

Rated R for some disturbing violent images and brief sexual material.
Running Time; 1 hr. and 22 mins.

Available on DVD and VOD.

Comments

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