At a time when apocalyptic scenarios tend to focus on societal collapse, mass violence and the unleashing of zombie hordes, it’s a small virtue that “Into the Forest,” Patricia Rozema’s heartfelt adaptation of Jean Hegland’s novel, takes a decisive turn toward the intimate. When the power goes out for good at their secluded home in the Northern California woods, two sisters are forced to fight for survival, but the apocalypse only matters insofar as it intensifies and clarifies their bond. Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood are both superb in the lead roles, but Rozema’s emphasis on the primacy of family and nature exposes a deficit of visual and narrative imagination. Like the dwindling gas supply to the family generator, Page and Wood can only energize this melodrama for so long before it sputters out, and its commercial prospects will likewise flicker and fade.
Living a few miles from civilization, with a generous supply of organics and canned goods, give Nell (Page) and Eva (Wood) the jump on disaster preparedness, but “Into the Forest” spends the early going making clear that they’re just as gadget- and screen-dependent as other 21st-century Americans. Nell, Eva and their widowed father (Callum Keith Rennie) have weathered a series of blackouts before, but when the latest one appears permanent, they’re forced to disconnect and improvise. The challenge becomes infinitely more difficult for the siblings after their father dies in a fluke accident and they have to figure out how to ration food, protect themselves from invaders, and hold onto their sanity.
Rozema introduces a couple of other characters from town, namely Nell’s boyfriend, Eli (Max Minghella), who turns up with tempting proposition, and Stan (Michael Eklund), a store clerk whose presence is considerably less welcome. But the focus is on Nell and Eva, who love each other deeply yet sometimes struggle to figure out the best course of action. Before the outage, Nell was studying for the SATs and Eva was working hard to prepare for a dance audition, and they stubbornly cling to those activities even when it’s obvious they’ll never come to pass. They still want to satisfy their wants as individuals, even though they have to make sacrifices in order to survive as a unit. Though focusing on these activities keep them from falling into despair, Rozema subtly connects their craving for normalcy with the modern condition of family members orbiting around each other. When technology exists to make every facet of life easier, families run out of reasons to work on something together.
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By eliminating any specific cause to the blackout and keeping Nell and Eva mostly isolated from civilization, “Into the Forest” can get back to the idea of people living as they did before Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs came along. Though a few shocking incidents take the film beyond mere survival drama, Rozema bends toward a future where these women can step outside their door and figure out how to sustain themselves in an ancient forest. Amid their terrible hardships, she finds a sliver of hope.
Page (who developed and co-produced the project) and Wood are terrific together, with all the symbiosis and friction expected of close siblings, but Nell’s and Eva’s interior lives are regrettably thin. As with her 1999 Jane Austen adaptation “Mansfield Park,” Rozema has an attraction to literary material, but despite her evident intelligence and sensitivity, she lacks the facility to bring it to specific cinematic life. Connecting the incidents in Hegland’s book gives “Into the Forest” plenty of dramatic kick, but the film leaves the impression that the characters’ full selves remain stubbornly on the page, as thoughts not translated into action.
The absence of a more dynamic visual style harms the film, too. Though Rozema enlists the celebrated Crystal Pite for Eva’s dance choreography, she doesn’t linger on its ecstatic poetry for very long. And with the natural majesty of British Columbia subbing more than capably for the redwoods of California, it’s worse still that the forest doesn’t assert itself more forcefully. As the title suggests, there has to be a mythic pull to the landscape, drawing the sisters away from the comfortable trappings of their former life. It’s not enough to function as mere backdrop. Like the rest of the film, it could use a bolder touch.