Empty Balcony: Into the Forest

As Into the Forest began, I knew little about the film. Was the feature from writer/director Patricia Rozema, adapting the novel by Jean Hegland, a YA film? Sci-fi? Horror? Chick flick? Post-apocalyptic? Dystopian? All signs pointed to it being a little bit of all these genres, and more.

The film follows sisters Nell and Eva (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood). They live in the woods around the west coast of Canada with their father (Callum Keith Rennie). They’re not a rustic bunch. They house they occupy has some problems with the roof, but other than that it’s a wonderful modern construction with lots of glass on the outside and lots of stainless steel in the kitchen.

It’s the near future, although no timeframe is given. We’re clued in out here on the other side of the screen by the ubiquitous voice controls for the house and the holographic computer monitors. Eva has her own dance studio while Nell has a dead-voiced AI to help her study for the SATs. I’m not quite sure what dad does for a living, but he’s fooling around on a computer like Nell one fine evening when the power goes out. And it stays out. For reasons unknown, the combined power grids of Canada and the United States have suffered a catastrophic failure, akin to the blackout of 2003, only much more massive.

Days pass. Then weeks. Still the power does not come back on. After a tragedy removes Nell and Eva’s father from the movie, the two young ladies are forced to fend for themselves.

At this point, the film could have gone in many different directions. Most of these are predictable, but that doesn’t mean they would have been bad. I suppose the easy route for Rozema to take would have been placing Nell and Eva in constant danger. In fact, the new world they live in is dangerous and unfamiliar to anyone who was raised around modernity, but Rozema chose not to place her protagonists in a nightmarish world of Mad Max-type banditry. Perhaps the world would descend into such animalism, but no one can keep up that type barbarity constantly.

Rozema provides some brief glimpses of how a small town would handle the early weeks of a blackout, and the people are pretty civil even as supplies diminish due to the collapse of the supply chain. This is probably accurate. I’ve lived in New York City for almost twenty years, now. In that time I’ve seen a massive terrorist attack, the 2003 blackout, Hurricane Sandy, and other disruptions, and I’ve found that the picture Hollywood paints of humanity being prone to panic is not accurate. Shock and dismay, yes. But bloody panic? No. People soldier on until their bellies start to grumble. Then things get serious.

After this one trip into town, the remainder of the film takes place back at the house. Nell and Eva are isolated from the collapse of civilization. Where they are, out in the forest, no other human seems to tread. Their father had a shelf full of encyclopedias and books on local wildlife, and the two use this collection of knowledge to teach themselves foraging and hunting, canning and slaughtering. They prove fully capable of providing for themselves, yet not once do they consider patching the roof.

The story is a slow burn. All the tension comes from the audience’s expectations of what post-apocalyptic fiction should be, not from any intent in Rozema’s direction or screenplay. There is an air of menace that permeates the film but only because we audience members know what humanity is capable of — not from any constant threat the sisters face. There is a singular moment of brutality, but it’s not anything unfamiliar to the time when the lights were still on.

The world has been reduced to Nell, Eva, and the forest. Seeing how they get on makes for a good film. It doesn’t live up to most of the audience’s expectations for the story, but that’s our fault, not the film’s.