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Almost lost boys: maturity and identity in Nicholas Verso's Boys in the Trees.


The teen drama is a genre that never loses relevance --and for good reason. Not only is there always a new generation of teenagers in need of art to relate to as they navigate the thorny path through adolescence, but the genre's enduring themes of identity and belonging also hold emotional truths to which all ages can respond.

Boys in the Trees (Nicholas Verso, 2016) weaves such a narrative using the language of dreams, fantasy and horror films to tell the story of two estranged friends, Corey (Toby Wallace) and Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), who come together on Halloween in 1997. On the cusp of graduation, the boys are facing an uncertain future and turmoil in the present. In particular, Jonah, a misfit whose small stature and introverted nature make him an easy target for schoolyard victimisation, is viciously bullied by violently arrogant jock Jango (Justin Holborow). Corey and Jonah had a falling-out after the former joined Jango's 'cool' crowd, the clear implication being that he finds safety in the social acceptance afforded by associating with the bully, rather than the 'outsider' status that stems from his friendship with Jonah. But it's also clear that Corey doesn't fit with Jango's manifesto of 'Weed to smoke, bitches to fuck [and] fags to bash', and feels uncomfortable among his boozing crew. This uncertainty is highlighted in an early scene in which he watches Jango beat Jonah but does nothing to protect his former friend.

Corey cannot avoid this dilemma for long, however, as he encounters Jonah that evening during Halloween celebrations. Jonah convinces Corey to walk him home, beginning a surreal, spiritual journey in which Corey rediscovers himself, learning about his own identity and the ways his current choices may destroy his future. As Jangc tells him, 'If you want to run with the wolves, you've got to kill a few lambs'--and Corey is coming to the realisation that, although he has put on the skin of a wolf (literalised in his Halloween costume, the various masks worn by the characters embodying clear allusions to the 'masks' donned in daily life), it doesn't suit him in the slightest.

Boys in the Trees takes a highly stylised tack to what is, at heart, a familiar coming-of-age story, with a heavy dose of surreal morality at play. The Halloween setting allows for macabre costuming and vivid lighting, helping to create a dreamlike, metaphor-heavy world. As the protagonists play a childhood game telling ghost stories, past and present as well as fiction and real life begin to commingle, with Jonah guiding Corey to find himself again. Ultimately, this effort comes at a terrible cost: in the end, we learn that Jonah had taken his own life earlier that evening, and that it is his ghost that has been with Corey the whole night. Though he helps his friend gain maturity in the right spirit, he tragically does not survive to grow up himself.

Like much fiction revolving around teenagers, the question of identity is central to the characters' journeys. Verso portrays maturity and identity as entwined, particularly in terms of the risk of attaining the former at the expense of the latter. In one scene, Corey and Jonah peek in on a schlubby, downcast-looking middle-aged man slumped in front of his television. Jonah gives an account of this man's life: the pressures of social conformity caused him to compromise his dreams to the point that they were utterly forgotten and beyond reach. How much is true, and how much is metaphor, is ambiguous, as per the film's overall tone, but this makes clear the message that identity--as expressed in our dreams and ambitions--is fragile and easily lost as maturity brings increased pressure to adapt to one's environment. This becomes the fulcrum on which Corey's life pivots, as he must make a choice between conformity and comfort (as represented by Jango) and staying true to himself (by embracing his connection with Jonah and retaining the focus to achieve his aspirations).

It's a very simple (and simplistic) moral buried under thick, treacly layers of metaphor and philosophical soliloquies, teenage idealism filtered through an adult arthouse aesthetic. Jonah's ghostly self gives voice to most of these soliloquies, his real meaning often concealed in figurative language rather than stated outright:

It's not security you need to be worried about. It's the wolves in the walls that'll get you [...] I noticed them change. It was the smell I noticed first: the stench of twisting, multiplying hormones, it always preceded them [...]! saw skin disappear beneath unwelcome hair. Voices deepen into growls. Like a vims, it spread. And, once that toxin poisons you, you 're capable of doing things you never thought you'd do. All in the name of survival. No matter where you hide, they sniff you out. And, for those that didn't change, those that were left behind, those that didn't have the taste for blood, there was only one thing you could do.

His speech lays out the film's rather-fearful attitude to ageing, here using the wolf metaphor to paint puberty almost as an affliction, an invading force that animalises people, makes them a threat to those that resist its spell. It also further suggests that Jonah is, in some sense, physically underdeveloped--though whether he's simply a late bloomer or a more serious physical condition is at play is something the film keeps ambiguous, along with his sexuality (Jango seems to particularly enjoy hurling homophobic slurs at him, enough that one wonders whether there is more to it than generic teenage insults). Moreover, the speech hints at a fundamental difference between him and Corey: choice. Like all bullied teens, Jonah endures being thrust into the roles of the Other and the victim. Unlike Corey, Jonah can't simply remove his mask and decide whether to run with the pack or not (later in the film, we watch as Corey does precisely this and finds himself bolstered further by the encouragement of his wise-beyond-her-years love interest, Romany, played by Mitzi Ruhlmann).

While the film's message is essentially a hopeful one, the story in which it is couched is often oppressively dark. A strong vein of fear runs through it: fear of conformity, fear of not conforming, fear of failure, as well as that aforementioned fear of maturity itself (personified by Trevor Jamieson's omnipresent, white-suited Angel of Death figure). All the characters suffer from this malaise --even Jango, who, the film suggests, has an inkling that his life will probably go downhill after graduating from high school. Jonah is afraid because he is different, while Corey is afraid because he doubts who he is in the first place. Explaining the decision to set the film in 1997, Verso says:

The script was heavily influenced and coloured by memories of adolescent wanderings through the suburbs of Australia late at night, telling ghost stories and urban legends. Having grown up on a diet of [Steven] Spielberg, [Richard] Donner and [Joe] Dante films and Ray Bradbury books, the goal was always to view Australian suburbia through the eyes of imagination [... 1997] was the year we all started getting our first email accounts, mobile phones worked their ways into everyone's pockets, borders shifted and we lost historical figures that represented compassion and humanity such as Mother Theresa [sic] and Princess Diana--figures society has never really replaced. (1)

This quote is revealing when considering the doubts for the future held by the characters and, it seems, in a nostalgic sense, by the filmmakers. The film revels in its 1990s milieu, particularly with its alt-rock soundtrack. In form, however, it is closest to a film from the following decade: like Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001), Boys in the Trees couches the trials of adolescence in a mysterious, abstracted tone, leaning heavily on metaphor and magic realism as an outsider undergoes an existential journey to some kind of becoming or apotheosis. Both films also trade on a kind of existential fatalism, culminating in the death of a major character to correct a discord in the environment.

Jonah is Boys in the Trees' sacrificial lamb. One suspects that the preferred interpretation of his spectral visitation of Corey is that this is his final gift to his estranged friend, a chance to say goodbye by saving him from spiritual death. This is a common narrative trope, the dead becoming 'enlightened' once they cross over to the spirit realm and returning to aid the living. When we see an older Corey at the end of the film--Jonah's intervention having assisted him to achieve his dream of being a professional photographer--the icon-like pictures of Jonah in his home underline the fallen friend's role of martyr.

The impression Verso apparently wants to give is that Jonah is a representative for--if not representative of--the film's message of staying true to one's identity with age, a message Jonah uses to bring happiness to the protagonist. What complicates this, however, is that, while Corey is the nominal protagonist, Jonah is by far the more interesting character and would have had the more difficult, but perhaps more ultimately rewarding, journey. As the film's martyr figure, he basically exists to serve Corey's arc at the cost of his own. But, as much as Jonah's death gives the film a dramatic twist, I left the theatre wanting to know where he--rather than Corey might've been in ten years.

On a more overarching level, the film's own identity is similarly indistinct. It primarily evokes the 1990s--nostalgia, of course, having natural connections with getting older--yet it takes its tone and narrative style from the aforementioned Donnie Darko, and flaunts very clear references to movies of the 1980s (case in point: the streets packed with kids in Halloween costumes, and Jonah's corpse make-up and red hoodie, are clear references to Spielberg's 1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). While rescued somewhat by Marden Dean's arresting cinematography, the film, despite being sold on 1990s nostalgia, seems more of a grab bag of things Verso grew up with. This lends Boys in the Trees a personal feel--though, along with the film's flirtation with the horror, supernatural fantasy and coming-of-age drama genres, it likewise gives the sense of a cinematic work that is unsure of itself. While appropriate for the teenage turmoil through which its characters muddle, such uncertainty also means that a relatively simple message occasionally gets buried under self-conscious metaphor.

Ultimately, maturity is the thing that solidifies who we are; in Soys in the Trees, however, it comes across more as a malevolent force that must be conquered than anything else. Even the cursory coda feels like a postscript to the reveal of Jonah's fate instead of a real denouement. While Verso paints a pretty picture of navigating the angst and awkwardness of puberty, this journey isn't what the film is most interested in confronting. Boys in the Trees is less invested in seeing its own moral bear fruit, than it is in the tragedy that precedes it.

Cavan Gallagher is a freelance writer and playwright whose work has been published in periodicals such as Metro and Whingeing Pom, and online on Doublejump, and X-Press Magazine. He is also co-host of the There Will Be Geek podcast.


(1) Nicholas Verso, quoted in Fiona Hall, Boys in the Trees study guide, ATOM, Melbourne, 2016, p. 8.

Caption: Previous spread, L-R: School bully Jango (Justin Holborow) in Halloween costume; Jonah (Gulliver McGrath) Above, from top: Corey (Toby Wallace) with love interest Romany (Mitzi Ruhlmann); Corey
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Author:Gallagher, Cavan
Publication:Metro Magazine
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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