Adapted from the novel of the same name by Tawni O’Dell (who co-wrote the screenplay), Back Roads is the directorial debut of actor Alex Pettyfer. It revolves around the life of Harley (Pettyfer), who, two years after his mother (Juliette Lewis) is imprisoned for killing his father, struggles to look after his younger sisters and cope with the trauma of his past. With his job hanging by a thread and a budding affair with the mother of one of his sister’s friends, Harley must also face the harsh family secrets that begin to surface as the drama unfolds.
However, thanks to copious amounts of uninspired direction and a collection of underwhelming performances that deliver a muddled script, Pettyfer’s work fails to create a convincing narrative or say anything substantial about the issues it tries to raise in the final act.
Behind the camera for the first time, Pettyfer demonstrates a keen eye for framing and implements sound effectively to create atmosphere, especially in scenes of quiet contemplation. The issue, however, is that he is unable to do anything interesting or unique to inject his own artistic style. Each scene is drawn-out and static in its presentation, every character speaking in a detached, monotone manner, with Pettyfer’s performance as Harley being the most obvious example. It’s entirely possible that his lifeless delivery was purposely intended to convey the character’s fragile mindset, but when it is accompanied by the equally lifeless supporting cast and direction, we are simply left with a listless film.
The script, too, is a huge part of the shortcomings here. Not only do the characters not talk like believable humans, there’s also a strange tendency to underplay dramatic moments and overstate the most mundane things. Throw in meaningless imagery, tautological dialogue, and a rushed conclusion due to an overall lack of direction, and you have stark proof that not every novel translates well to the screen.
Back Roads has all the hallmarks of a hard-hitting and provocative family drama. Unfortunately, neither the script or the filmmaker seem to know how to assemble these components to bring their vision into fruition. Although it doesn’t quite enter the realm of a disasterpiece, this first outing falls noticeably short of its goals.
Back Roads is released in select cinemas on 15th November 2019.
Watch the trailer for Back Roads here: