“Burn Your Maps” is one of those movies that’s glib and facile and threadbare all the way through, then the ending sort of gets to you (you’d have to be made of pretty stern stuff if it didn’t), so you think back over what you’ve seen — and it’s still a crock. The writer-director, Jordan Roberts, seems drawn like a magnet to overly manipulative feel-good genres. This is another of those dramas about a couple who have lost a young child, and it’s ripping them apart, but watching them go through the motions of a healing that won’t take, the audience feels just about as removed from their pain as they are.
I’m not suggesting that this is an invalid subject for a movie, only that it’s not one you want to see treated with on-the-nose therapeutic shallowness. When we first meet Alise (Vera Farmiga) and Connor (Martin Csoka), whose baby daughter died 10 months ago, they’re in couples’ therapy, and the tensions between them are already at full boil. They’re discussing the fact that they no longer have sex; he’s the one who wants to, she’s the one who doesn’t. But that’s not the real conflict. It’s that she’s in a rage (at him, but really at the universe), and he’s mired in male-victim self-pity. He’s trying so hard to play the good husband that he can’t accept that his compassion isn’t working.
Farmiga and Csoka are fine actors, and they make this opening work. But instead of sustaining their intensity, the film moves on to more “crowd-pleasing” elements. Alise and Connor have a teenage daughter, Becca (Taylor Geare), and a son, Wes (played by Jacob Tremblay, from “Room” and “Wonder,” who shot this movie back when he was 10), who is channeling the family trauma by taking on a fantasy identity. He has learned about the nomads of Mongolia, and starting on Heritage Day (when you’re supposed to represent one of your late relatives in front of the class), he goes to school wearing a headdress and a furry puffy uniform and his sister’s Uggs, tending a flock of “goats” fashioned out of toilet-paper rolls.
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Should Wes be allowed to indulge in his role-playing? Alise says yes, Connor says no, and the fact that they disagree gives them an excuse to fight. Most of us would probably say that Wes should be allowed to play out his fantasy, but what’s annoying about “Burn Your Maps” is that it portrays the kid’s attraction to being “Mongolian” with a standard sort of sentimental absurdist indie-flick smugness. The kid has buried his pain, too, but in this case the movie practically anoints him for it. I should mention that he forms a friendship with Ismail (Suraj Sharma), one of his mom’s English-as-a-second-language students, an expatriate Indian geek who is one of those alienated-in-a-cuddly-way transplants who speaks in funny broken English that we’re somehow supposed to not find remotely patronizing. He’s like the Fisher Stevens character in “Short Circuit” played by a bona fide Indian actor, so I guess we should consider that progress.
Wes, his mother, and Ismail wind up traveling together to Mongolia, where the scenery is pristine in its primal grandeur, where Wes chases goats and rides horses, and where the film’s drama remains every bit as chintzy and telegraphed. “Burn Your Maps” is based on a short story by Robyn Joy Leff, but one may feel a distinct echo of the 2011 documentary “The Horse Boy,” in which a couple journey to the wilds of Mongolia, seeking out a shaman to heal their son’s autism. That movie was unruly and powerful; this one is coy and rigged. Yet it builds, too, to the family’s confrontation with a shaman, and Tserenbold Tsegmid, who plays him (and Jason Scott Lee, as his benevolent assistant), ground the movie in a mystic impulse that feels real. When the shaman tells Alise, and those around her, that she did not lose her baby, and explains why, you may be moved by the truth of it. But that doesn’t mean the film gets a pass. The touching reality of that moment just exposes the genial cardboard that came before.