All the Wilderness concerns a wayward person’s striving for social connection. The wilderness of the title literally refers to the woods behind the attractively remote cabin where James (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives with his mother, Abigail (Virginia Madsen). The word is more explicitly associated, though, with the estrangement that James feels in the wake of his father’s death, and with the objects that he internalizes as symbols of a vast, unqualifiable yearning, such as the intricate roots of an old tree, or the maze of paper-towel tubes that he’s fashioned for his hamster. A sensitive, creative teen on the verge of adulthood, the sort who casually reads Herman Melville and Carl Sandburg while listening to classical music, James is probably destined for this kind of stinging isolation anyway, at least for a while. But his father’s calamity complicates his eccentricities by inspiring a premature death obsession that James uses as a veiled excuse to recede from the spotlight of human intercommunication, while implicitly begging for someone to coax him out of his rut.
The film is precious, but that’s a hazard of the inchoate nature of the subject matter, which is structured, unsurprisingly, as a coming-of-age story. Aware of this preciousness, writer-director Michael Johnson wisely refuses to emphasize potentially reductive plot developments. All the Wilderness shares its hero’s tentative recession, allowing clichés, such as the introduction of a conveniently redemptive love interest, to drift off into inconclusive vapor. Johnson’s more concerned with the alienated specifics of James’s wandering, with the mental process that he’s obviously undergoing in order to move on from tragedy. James is a decent, intelligent person who’s trying to rationalize himself away from the understandable, somewhat attractive impulse to behave as an embittered, self-absorbed terror, and it’s this self-awareness that lends him unexpected stature as a character. In contrast to many films about American teenagers, Johnson offers an examination of self-pity, rather than a validation of it.
The images gorgeously embody both the fear and the beauty of James’s exploratory experiments with socialization. The night sequences have a majestic sense of mystery, as they’re rich in hazy neon reds and blues that suggest a 1980s Steven Spielberg film if it were remade by Wong Kar-Wai as one of his gloriously intuitive lost-love pageants. Johnson isn’t as accomplished as these legends, but he displays a similar knack for compositions that are simultaneously alive and painterly, and this aesthetic is complemented and deepened by the actors’ collectively poignant lightness of touch. All the Wilderness is slight and rambling, feeling padded even at 76 minutes, but it casts a lingering spell.