Emily Deming on SJIWFF’s Opening Night Feature, Into the Forest

Into the Forest is a spin on the end-of-society you likely haven't seen yet.

 Celebrities and the Delight of Surprise at the Movies

What a way to open! The 26th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival has, once again, blasted onto the scene announcing five days of profoundly good cinema. The opening night feature lived up to its star-power name recognition, with director/writer Patricia Rozema (I’ve heard the mermaids singing, Mansfield Park), producer/co-star Ellen Page (Juno, X-men) and co-star Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, True Blood).

Rozema introduced her latest film, Into the Forest, in person at the gala event, with her assurance that she would not ruin the audience’s experience with an introduction. As one of her great pleasures is watching a movie that she knows absolutely nothing about, she treated us to that pleasure as well. If that is a word I can use for 101 minutes of deep tension.

In honour to that pleasure of discovery, this post is a shade of what the movie cast, not a movie review. To properly review, I would have to give things away and lay judgements on territory that, even when flawed, is powerful, effective, and entertaining, and most forcefully so when seen with fresh eyes. 

Strong Women and a Crumbling World

The two central characters, sisters played by Ellen Page and Rachel Evan Wood, are strong and wonderfully imperfect. Layers of intra- and inter-tensions both within the girls’ home, and between their stronghold on the outside world, make up the unseen fascia of the film.

The world outside is quickly devolving into an unpredictable “wild west” after a power outage leaves everyone around the sisters’ home in the woods of the Pacific Northwest without means of communication, transportation, or any of what we consider “necessities” today. There is no way to find out how far the outage extends.

Rozema builds the stresses well with lots of space for our own worry and dark imaginings. Watching good people become more and more hesitant to offer help to others marks the escalation of danger. The tide turns quickly between charitable goodwill and cautious self-defense. The griefs and trials bring the central characters closer but only in a halting and realistic way.

Page and Wood do great homage to sibling relationships. They do not seamlessly unify under duress. Their natural differences and simmering grievances at first harden with hardship while their commitment and loyalty to each other still holds.

The little bursts of hope in the film are the moments when they help each other most by admitting defeat in their relations. When they let go of explaining or arguing a point and just exist in companionable opposition. Making sure each is fed and safe rather than in agreement. It is a beautiful and accurate look at true love. There is no time to mold each other into the perfect partner.

But they must remain partners; they must be a two-headed, four-armed, knowledge and weapon wielding beast with no back, always facing every direction to stave off external dangers, relying implicitly one on the other to defend their vulnerable sides. 

Violence, Well Shot, Becomes Art

I would love to talk more about the plot, the pivotal events, as they are talk-worthy in their brutal nature and unflinching direction. The camerawork during one violent episode is so well done that the terrible emotions resulting from the incident are easily integrated into our own understanding.

I will say that the movie does not shy away from darkness, and the aftermath and mess of each trauma are weighed as heavily as the punctuating actions. All more keenly felt as small warmths, natural beauty and humour are not ignored and serve as a highlighting giving boundaries and perspective to darkness.

I would love to delve into the choices that make the ending something that will linger in my mind for a long time. Because, while the traumas of the movie make the ending plausible, what does it say about us that it also made so many in the audience squirm and try to figure a way out of the finality of it?

But, until the film is in wide release, I will only be vague, as I do not want to ruin the pleasure of shock and discovery that Rozema granted us on opening night of the SJIWFF, and that a fresh viewing of this spartan thriller/drama holds for future audiences.

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