Boys in the Trees

Scott Wallace
17th Oct 2016

Most of us, when looking back on our childhood, fondly recall the make believe games we played - building entire worlds for our own amusement. The brilliantly original new Australian film Boys in the Trees, which received a standing ovation following its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, takes an absorbing and disarming look at where those make believe fantasies go when the nagging knock of adulthood interrupts the reverie.

Boys in the Trees stars Toby Wallace as Corey, the handsome skater boy who rules the roost with his gang of miscreants, including best friend Jango (Justin Holborow). Tensions arise between the gang when it is revealed that Corey's ambitions reach beyond kicking around with the gang forever - he wants to study photography in New York - and come to a head on Halloween night when Corey leaves the group behind and finds himself walking home with an estranged friend, the troubled and alienated Jonah (Gulliver McGrath). As Corey and Jonah walk home, they tell scary stories like they used to, but it seems this time there may be far more weight behind their games.

The film is set in 1997, the baggy pants and alt-metal oriented soundtrack instantly evoking nostalgia for anyone under 35. It's the kind of nostalgia that transcends aesthetics though. Boys in the Trees is a timeless tale of belonging and identity, and a fearlessly inventive one that verges on magic realism. At its centre is the character of Jonah, not Corey, and the meeker boy's story hits like a punch to the stomach made all the more bittersweet by the film's direct, sometimes brutal evocation of his deepest fears and the saddening depths of his victimhood.

The cast, though there are a few awkward moments in the dialogue that sit uncomfortably between pathos and crassness, are brilliant. McGrath, despite being hidden behind corpse-like make-up, gives a nuanced and expressive performance. The entire character can be read through his eyes. Mitzi Ruhlmann, as the individualistic and ambitious Romany, is also divine. In her tender characterisation she creates a vivid picture of the woman her character is already growing into, leaving her small town life behind. Justin Holborow's Jango also strikes a finely detailed balance between fear and pity.

Given that this was the first feature for writer and director Nicholas Verso, it's a remarkably confident film. Verso cut his teeth making well-received shorts, and it shows in the way he knows how to deliver a narrative coup de grace in a logical and immensely satisfying way. Boys in the Trees is constructed in such a way that audience feels genuine emotions from the way they connect to these characters, ranging from confusion, to fear, and ultimately deep sadness.

Arguably one of the strengths of Australian film is the way it amplifies the smallest, most insular narratives into far-reaching, deeply affecting stories. In that regard, Boys in the Trees is is up there with the classics of Australian cinema. This courageous, endlessly fascinating and artful film is an absolute must-see.

Boys in the Trees opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 20th.