After the sudden death of his mother, a taciturn boy heads for the hills in “The Cold Lands,” the sophomore feature of director Tom Gilroy (“Spring Forward”). The film is essentially composed of an extended prologue and two not entirely well-matched halves, the first (and weakest) of which sees the kid survive on his own in the woods of upstate New York before befriending a grungy drifter who happily scrapes by off the grid. Beautiful cinematography, and especially Peter Scanavino’s turn as the good-hearted hobo, should help land some international fest dates and at least a VOD release Stateside.
The early going sets out the anti-establishment ideas of neo-hippie mom Nicole (Lili Taylor), who instructs her son, Atticus (Silas Yelich), to toss out the cupcakes brought by a well-meaning church lady (Maggie Low) who’s clearly worried about Nicole’s health, but doesn’t know she has diabetes (and refuses outside help). Since mom always instructed him to avoid the authorities, 11-year-old Atticus leaves their idyllically located house — replete with bathing pond — as soon as the sheriff comes looking for the boy after Nicole’s unexpected death.
By this point, “Lands” has already signaled that Atticus occasionally slips into fantasy-dream mode a la “The Beasts of the Southern Wild,” perhaps not coincidentally also produced by Cinereach and Journeyman Pictures. But these sequences don’t offer a more complex look at the boy’s inner life, which is problematic, because there’s not a lot of dialogue for the long stretch he’s on his own in the Catskills, “Into the Wild”-style.
In this first-half action, there are a few psychology 101-style confrontations with his mom (read: conscience), such as when Atticus steals an iPod (“Do you really need that?” intones the cliched voiceover), as well as an enigmatic encounter with a possibly imagined deer. It doesn’t help that non-pro Yelich, who’s only earlier credit is an appearance in R.E.M.’s Gilroy-directed musicvid “It Happened Today,” is “Benetton”-ad photogenic but not expressive enough to suggest what he’s thinking without using words.
“Lands” finally roars back to life when Atticus runs into Carter (Scanavino), a charismatic, morally upright and resourceful wanderer who works the odd job until he gets fired and who moonlights as a necklace salesman. The duo stick together even after Carter’s figured out Atticus is the missing kid from the posters, and their relaxed banter and growing bond ring true.
It’s clear Gilroy is simpatico to his characters’ way of refusing to live within society’s predefined framework. But by choosing to make his case through the eyes of a traumatized 11-year-old, who can’t clearly reason for himself — and remains underdeveloped at the script level — the scribe-helmer muddies the pic’s p.o.v. An attempt to connect the protags’ struggles with the Anti-Rent War, which also took place in upstate New York, is handled in similarly awkward fashion, remaining narratively superfluous and thematically nebulous.
The supporting roles are mainly filled with actors who have worked with Gilroy in the theater over the years, including not only Taylor — whose just adequate here — but also Lowe, Nick Sandow, John Ventimiglia and Andrew van Dusen. Most are generally on the money.
The sharpest tech contribution comes from d.p. Wyatt Garfield, a gaffer on “Beasts,” who here delivers a bucolic version of the Catskills Mountains in which the leafy greens and shades of yellow of the omnipresent Canada goldenrods contrast with velvety blacks under a crown canopy that suggests danger and unexplored areas. Other below-the-line credits are equally pro.