'The Strange Ones': A Road Trip With An Enigmatic Destination
This low-budget enigma of a film, which follows two brothers (or, at least, two people who say they're brothers) on a road trip, during which they seem to be heading out to a cabin in the woods that neither of them is particularly thrilled about, uses what limited resources it has to conjure up a hazy, unsettling mood. And it mostly works. The characters may not have a clear destination, but this movie does: to put its co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, working off a short they made in 2011, on the indie-thriller map.
What's going on here? There was a fire, that much we know from the start. And it seems likely someone died in it. But if the barely pubescent Sam (a magnetic James Freedson-Jackson) and his older brother/chaperone Nick (a monotonal Alex Pettyfer) know something, they're not telling us, or each other. Showing precious little in the way of fraternal affection, the two instead hit the highway, taking in an upstate New York landscape culled from the American cinephile's roadmap: a roadside diner that sets the table for Lynchian magic tricks; a forest with sun-drenched treetops and Shane Carruth-like time-skips; assumed identities, with Sam telling everyone his name is "Jeremiah" until he meets some actual Jeremiahs; horizon lines on the highway.
A pit stop before the woods takes place at a seedy motel, empty on account of the offseason. Its lone caretaker is a young woman (Emily Althaus, Orange is the New Black's Kukidio) who takes an instant liking to Nick and lets the guys stay there for free, leaving us to ponder just how deep her loneliness must go. Nick wants to stay (Pettyfer is just stone-faced enough as an actor to make us question whether his characters are supposed to be this inscrutable) but Sam/Jeremiah does not, and acts out until they're on their way to the woods once more. His attempts to derail Nick's budding relationship are the first true nuggets of information we get on the role of sex in this story — it will wind up being central to what follows. But the film is never quite clear on if its taboo themes are the reason for its obliqueness, or the excuse for it.
What is clear, though, is that the filmmakers have a true find in Freedson-Jackson, whose biggest credit to date was in the Kevin Bacon crime flick Cop Car. Not even 15 when The Strange Ones was shot, the actor turns Sam's fleeting youth into an existential horror, his glare piercing into everything and everyone he sees. The story hinges on Sam's actions, in the past and present, and Freedson-Jackson's cherubic face hints at what sort of uneasy attractions might have driven those choices. When he reverts to childishness around Nick, it is a queasy kind of immaturity, and it sets us off balance.
If all of The Strange Ones had been as adept at holding our attention as its young star, there would be more here to recommend to those outside of the casual art-house crowd. But its pastiche elements never form into something that feels uniquely compelling. The digital camerawork, with heavy use of zoom, handheld chase sequences and unfussy lighting, suggests a sense of realism (or, at least, naturalism) that the rest of the film is unwilling to commit to. And this may not be fair to the directors, but the film's two best conceits have been done better elsewhere: A moment of absurd behavior in the woods when Nick repeatedly fires his hunting rifle into the air with Sam lying defenseless before him is a mirror of the amazing opening scene to last fall's Thelma—and the queasy scenes at the motel bring to mind 2016's woefully underseen Lamb, another low-budget drama about an inappropriate road trip shared by adult and child.
The idea that all or part of this could be made up is also floated, from time to time, to make sure we're still paying attention. "Everything from before this trip, none of it exists. Unless you want it to," Nick tells his bro. Fair enough. Memory and experience and all that. It's the kind of head-spinning trickery that does gangbusters at places like SXSW, where The Strange Ones won the Special Jury Award, and it was nominated for several awards last year. But such a style can easily substitute genuinely interesting filmmaking for the kind of meta-reality that just winds up eating itself.
Films like The Strange Ones are more fascinating and certainly more daring achievements for novice directors than rote A-to-B dramas, because they hint at unique ambitions through the power of suggestion alone. But if you don't plot out your signposts just right, you're liable to get lost.