Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest, based on Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel of the same same, begins as though it were its own awkward trailer, or a spoof of sappy Hollywood stories starring young women. The introductory montage features brief shots of the characters being adorably oblivious to the impending tragedies that are sure to befall them, with Evan Rachel Wood’s Eva doing an interpretative dance and Ellen Page’s Nell surfing the Internet on an inexplicably holographic desktop computer. All of this is slapped together by a Cat Power cover of “Wild Is the Wind.” Wood and Page play sisters marooned in their souped-up forest home with their happy-go-lucky father (Callum Rennie) when a power outrage hits the region, and apparently the country, or the entire world, in an eerie but underexplored War of the Worlds scenario.
The lack of electricity initially brings #whitegirlproblems to the household, keeping Eva from practicing her dance moves and Nell from studying for her SATs, to which the father’s response is to remind the girls that books still exist. One wonders if this is going to be a film about getting screen-addicted post-millennial kids to fall back in love with print, even nature. The heavy-handedness suggests that it could very well be, but writer-director Patricia Rozema has other platitudes in mind. As the power outage drags out for months, or years, the family runs out of gas, but somehow never out of food (though they do have to ration it), and all sorts of cruel things happen.
Whatever metaphorical potential was inherent to this film’s story is stunted by Rozema and Hegland’s airtight conventional script, which never explores the ennui that Eva and Nell’s situation might rouse within most persons. The diegetic lack of electricity and WiFi could have been a great pretext for challenging the viewers’ own attention spans, allowing scenes to simmer without having to quickly move on to observe the next tragic incident that befalls the sisters. Instead of surveying, or at least representing, the slowness of time that Nell and Eva are forced to come to grips with as virtual escapes from nature become impossible, the filmmakers insist on finding the drama elsewhere—and mostly in safely canned dramatic twists.
While Into the Forest timidly suggests the ominousness of a film like The Happening, it’s ultimately lost between genres. It never commits to the campy charms of what could have been a great horror flick, nor does it aim for poetic sensibility or allegorical boldness à la Antichrist, another tale of horror and death in the woods. Essentially a post-apocalyptic telenovela, it sanitizes the concept of sisterhood, and even womanhood. In the face of unspeakable and incessant tragedy, which would bring out the worst in most of us, Eva and Nell remain civil, compassionate, and clear-headed. Ladies will be ladies. The biggest animosity between them, after so many horrors, has nothing to do with jealousy or the nasty things one does for the sake of survival, but with whether one ate a chocolate bonbon behind the other’s back.