When an actor who’s been packaged as a sexy mainstream star hops off the commercial train to direct a small independent feature, one that takes on a topic as raw as child sexual abuse, you can presume that the movie in question is a passion project. But it can also be a calculated image-changer. “Back Roads,” directed by the rising British actor Alex Pettyfer, who also stars in it, may be a bit of both. The film is based on Tawni Odell’s 1999 novel, which is set in backwoods Western Pennsylvania, and it’s about a family so fractured that it’s become a hornets’ nest of rage, misery, and dysfunction.
Pettyfer plays Harley, who’s been taking care of his three younger sisters for two years — ever since their mother, Bonnie (Juliette Lewis), was sent to prison for killing their father. The father was a violent abuser, so the film’s attitude toward him is “good riddance.” But cutting him out of the picture didn’t necessarily get rid of the problems that haunt this family. Far from it. Harley, in his mid-twenties, has been thrust into a sibling-as-parent role he couldn’t be less equipped to handle, and has no interest in growing into.
Pettyfer, who began his career as a model, tries to offset his handsomeness by playing every scene with a kind of distraught worminess, and to a degree it works. We can sense how uncomfortable Harley is in his own skin. Yet though that’s a tricky thing for an actor to pull off, part of you may feel it’s Pettyfer himself who isn’t entirely at home playing someone this damaged and broken.
At the overlit big-box grocery store where Harley works the night shift, he meets Callie (Jennifer Morrison), a local mom about 10 years older than he is, trapped in a lonely marriage with a couple of young kids. The two strike up a gentle communion, but when Callie asks Harley if he’s ever had sex before, we’re shocked at the question and have to do a bit of a mental backflip to process it. Harley, as the film presents him, might theoretically be a tormented aging virgin, but Alex Pettyfer doesn’t exactly radiate that quality. He has too much natural physical confidence. And that slight blurry disconnect between actor and character plays into the central problem with “Back Roads”: The movie piles on so many lurid revelations from the past that we stop experiencing them as part of the drama. They become a series of labels we affix to the characters.
Directing his first film, Pettyfer does a skillful job of establishing an atmosphere of small-town service-economy desolation. Surprisingly, he’s less good with the actors, who register vividly but sometimes seem to be acting in different movies. Juliette Lewis, as the family’s martyr/murderer, still grieving for the loss of her loved ones from behind bars, is superb — you look at her and feel the spiritual chill of the landscape etched into her skin. But Harley’s oldest sister, Amber, is playing out what happened to her in the past by going with dudes who hit her and sleeping with as many as possible, and Nicola Peltz, from “Bates Motel,” plays that righteous recklessness without enough small-town specificity. She just comes off as a standard peroxide hellion-harlot movie type.
As it happens, there was a drama this year — HBO’s “Sharp Objects” — supple and creepy enough to reveal the familial abuse of children from the inside out. It’s as serious a subject as there is, but that means that the bar is high for it. And frankly, it’s been treated as a plot device in enough movies that the effect of all that routinely revelatory heart of darkness has been a kind of waxy buildup of domestic hell. It now takes more than it once did to shock us, and “Back Roads” wants to do just that, but the effect, in this case, is more audacious than it is convincing.