When we meet James Charm in “All the Wilderness,” the sullen, isolated, insolent teen played so eloquently by Kodi Smit-McPhee is in an open field, focused on his journal, making notes and sketching a dead bird.
A few minutes later, as he’s making his way back home, James clashes with friends. The issue again is death. The kid is an enigma, and his mother, Abigail (Virginia Madsen), is clearly at wits’ end. Why or what is causing the emotional churn is a mystery, but the disparate pieces are intriguing enough that you’re inclined to want to puzzle it out.
In this lyrical, if not quite perfectly synthesized tale, writer-director Michael Johnson has created not so much a coming-of-age story as a coming-to-terms for James. There are reasons the teenager is in this dark place, and the road out is certainly rocky.
The indie represents a still-raw but impressive feature debut for Johnson. He cites a string of literary greats as inspiration for “Wilderness” — poet Carl Sandburg and novelist Michael Chabon among them — and you can sense the filmmaker’s allegiance to allegory throughout.
He’s put James in something of a fever dream of grief. It makes the teenager nearly silent during his sessions with Walter (Danny DeVito), a psychiatrist he’s been seeing for a while. Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), a spirited young woman he bumps into in the waiting room, is the first person who seems to penetrate the walls he’s constructed.
In another chance encounter, James’ path crosses that of another untamed youth. Just as wounded, but more worldly than James, the street-savvy Harmon (Evan Ross) draws the teen into a completely different piece of the city from which he’s grown up. As James tags along into an underground scene of kids, indie alt clubs, drugs and conversation, he begins to find his way.
Finding Val again, this time working a food truck, helps too. In a sense, James becomes Harmon and Val’s reclamation project, though in that effortless, off-handed way of teens who accomplish a lot just by being there and being interested.
The movie was shot around Portland, Ore., the filmmakers’ hometown, and director of photography Adam Newport-Berra was given the latitude to linger on faces and places. It helps create a kind of moody languor that suits James and his situation.
Though he’s been acting since he was 10, Smit-McPhee first drew notice as Boy opposite Viggo Mortensen’s Man in the 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic father-son saga “The Road.” The actor is equally at ease in big films like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the coming “X-men: Apocalypse” and smaller projects like the interesting drama-horror of “Let Me In.”
“All the Wilderness” seems tailor-made to play to the actor’s strengths — Johnson’s script is as lean as Smit-McPhee, both proving adept at doing more with less.
There is a scene with James, silent as usual, in the back seat of the car. His mother is driving. As she glances into the rearview mirror to check on her son, a range of emotions moves across her face, worry and love the easiest to spot. James, unaware of his mother or the world racing by outside his window, is so lost, and Smit-McPhee is so lost in the moment, that the effect is achingly beautiful.
Though other moments don’t come together as neatly, scenes like that one capture James’ journey perfectly and provide a glimpse of an intriguing new filmmaker’s coming-of-age too.