When mom (Juliette Lewis) goes to jail for killing their abusive dad, introverted, undereducated son Harley (Alex Pettyfer) proves wholly unequipped to take care of his three younger sisters — obnoxious, promiscuous teenager Amber (Nicola Peltz), embittered middle daughter Misty (Chiara Aurelia) and observant 6-year-old Jodie (Hala Finley) — in the rural melodrama “Back Roads.”
Like ersatz Tennessee Williams fed through a family-secrets algorithm, this scattershot adaptation of Tawni O’Dell’s 1999 novel, which she co-wrote with Adrian Lyne and which Pettyfer also directed, is best described as earnestly disturbing. Though there’s an abiding sensitivity in the often-noirish approach to the story’s many traumas and its characters’ flailing attempts at coping, as a whole it’s something of a tonal mess.
You can tell Pettyfer likes the complications, the unease and the offhand tenderness in the scenario of an insecure, stricken young man pulled and pushed by the strong females of all ages around him, including a dissatisfied 10-years-older housewife (Jennifer Morrison) whose affair with Harley is the best thing in the movie. Though Pettyfer himself is too old and heartthrobby for the role, he plays against it enough to make Harley a commandingly broken protagonist. But there’s a potboiler plot that must win out, and its poorly handled revelations nearly sink the film. “Back Roads” is that peculiar kind of disappointment: a wreck about wreckage.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD