2014 SXSW Review: THE WILDERNESS OF JAMES

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

This particular film was one of those exciting discoveries that I just happen to come across as I just happened to be at the right theater at the right time. After finishing Impossible Light, I had some time to kill before my other planned screenings for the night and decided to hang around the Violet Crown Cinema for what turned out to be a dark, introspective and exciting film about coping with loss and mortality. Writer/director Michael Johnson’s first feature film was placed under the “Visions” category at the festival, and his film is truly visionary. Featuring solid writing and outstanding performances by the cast The Wilderness of James should be the breakthrough film that hopefully gets Michael Johnson recognition and headed in the direction of a lauded and successful film career.

Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as the title character James whose obsession with death stems mostly from the loss of his father. Therapy sessions with his psychiatrist (Danny DeVito) offer little help, and his strained relationship with his mother Abigail (Virginia Madsen) make James want to break free and explore life on his own terms.  James soon befriends Harmon (Evan Ross), another type of “lost boy” whose charismatic personality brings James more out of his protective shell. James also discovers a love interest in a young lady named Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), who happens to be another patient of James’ therapist.  As James explores the city with his new friends, he also reflects on life, death, and the recent events which have forever changed him.

Johnson’s debut film is not only visually stylized and strikingly gorgeous, the script definitely shows immense potential for more outstanding future work.  The development of his main character truly is incredible and Kodi Smit-McPhee helps to completely flesh him out with an excellent performance.  The film also features solid turns by Ross, Fuhrman, and Madsen, whose talent is sadly underused here. Nevertheless, The Wilderness of James is one of those debut films by a writer/director that begs the question, where has this filmmaker been and how is this his only feature film?

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