The disappearance of two immigrant children in mid-19th-century rural Pennsylvania provides the narrative gist and mystery of “Kinderwald.” Lise Raven’s first feature since her crime drama “Low” nearly two decades ago is billed as the middle part in a trilogy inspired by fairy tales about children lost in the woods (the first being last year’s short “Neighbors”), though it comes off more as an effective miniature of pioneer life in the mode of Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff.” Though this Slamdance Film Festival closer lacks most of the qualities that typically make period pieces commercially viable — star names, spectacle — it’s a visually lovely piece that could parlay critical support into some arthouse play before moving on to home formats.
German emigres John (co-scenarist Frank Bruckner) and Flora Linden (Emily Behr) have arrived in south central Pennsylvania in 1854 to start a new life, camping in the forest while he works shoveling coal at a mill nearby. It takes a while for the odd vibe between them to be explained — they’re not actually a married couple, but in-laws, as she is widow to the brother who fathered the two young sons in their charge.
After a few days here, Caspar and Georgie (played by real-life sibs Leopold and Ludwig Fischer Pasternak) vanish, to Flora’s extreme distress. All local residents, a miscellany of races and nationalities, help the Lindens in their initial search. But soon it is assumed the boys are dead, and Frank must continue searching alone. Among those who variously help or hinder the effort are a teenage neighbor (Max Cove) smitten with the distraught but still comely mother, and two wandering scoundrels (Brian McCann, Doug Greene) who take a more sinister interest in her plight.
The resolution is unnecessarily murky, but otherwise “Kinderwald” strikes the right note of moderate suspense and quiet lyricism. Principal performances are strong; Will DeJessa’s outdoor lensing (there are virtually no interior sequences) is often exquisite. The sparse but effective soundtrack makes use of ambient tracks by Syntonic Research and Moby, in addition to some archival nature sounds originally recorded near the shooting locations almost 40 years ago for “Days of Heaven.”