After his mother (Juliette Lewis) goes to jail for shooting and killing his abusive father, Harley Altmyer (Alex Pettyfer) is left to care for his three younger sisters in a rural Pennsylvania town. The uneducated Harley works two dead-end jobs to preserve what’s left of his family, including the rebellious, sexual 16-year-old Amber (Nicola Peltz). Angered and traumatized by his painful past, Harley finally begins to feel hope when he connects with an older, married woman (Jennifer Morrison), and they embark on an affair. When shocking family secrets emerge, Harley’s life begins to spiral downward, leading to a devastating conclusion that impacts the entire community.
From the start of the film, Back Roads is not an easy film to watch. There are moments a brightness in an otherwise bleak existence. The film gives us the impression Harley would have had an entirely different route to his life had it not been for the death of his father and his mother being imprisoned for murder. Circumstance has left him in a hopeless situation and suffering from panic attacks that render him incapable of being the responsible father figure his sisters need It’s not helped that he has a promiscuous sister, another who’s approaching her teenage years and a precocious six-year-old sister. It’s clear he has little going for him and Pettyfer captures this sense of hopeless and anger with deft skill and emotion.
Whilst much of the film’s drama comes from Pettyfer’s incredibly intense portrayal of Harley, he’s surrounded by a superb cast, including Juliette Lewis as his mother and on fine form, Jennifer Morrison as the married woman that attracts Harley and Robert Patrick as the sheriff bookending the film. Nicola Peltz, Chiara Aurelia, and Hala Finley add depth to the family as the three sisters, bringing grit and tension to Harley’s world. Peltz, in particular, has a presence as the loud-mouthed, entitled teenage tease who criticises her brother, and legal guardian’s, every action, provoking him with her attitude whilst hiding secrets of her own. Whilst Morrison may provide physical comfort for Harley, mental comfort is provided by his psychiatrist, Betty, played with quiet determination and strength by June Carryl. Betty appears to have spoken to all the family and knows more than any individual character and it’s a talk with her that leads Harley on the path to all truths.
There are many uncomfortable moments in the film, particularly the tension between Harley and Amber and the intensity of Harley’s interest in his neighbour, and the film never really lets up with this sense of darkness. The only light in Harley’s life, initially, comes in said neighbour, Callie Mercer, ably played by Morrison, who finds much comfort in the damaged younger man whilst trying to balance her, largely unseen, personal life. Whilst Harley may want a better life, the small world around him suffocates anything he may wish to do as does the secrets that emerge. Callie tries to breathe life into him with eventually disastrous results as she cannot leave her family life for the broken world that he inhabits. As more truths become apparent, small holes appear in his armour as he attempts to do the right thing, whilst dealing with his inner demons and the secrets that erupt to the surface.
The revelations in Back Roads are gradually teased out from the story over its 1hr 41m running time, including a truly devastating and disturbing one about Amber that sheds more light on how broken the family always were. The film isn’t labyrinthine, by any means, but we learn more about the past of the Altmyer from all of its members as the film progresses, it’s rarely signposted and leaves the viewer with much to think about.
Back Roads is beautifully shot with Baton Rouge in Louisana doubling for Pennsylvania. Tawni O’Dell’s script (based on her novel) is led by Pettyfer’s direction from scene-to-scene with Jarin Blaschke as the cinematographer and music by John Hunter, we see a world that is equally light and breezy and dark and troubled. By the end of the film, there can be no doubt that some things shouldn’t happen and that some people see themselves as irredeemable no matter how hard some people believe and that life goes on.
Impressive, emotional and gripping performances and a powerful directorial debut with an uncompromising vision from Pettyfer, Back Roads is not an easy viewing experience It’s truly unsettling in a number of places, without becoming overly melodramatic with the handling of its subject matter. Pettyfer leads a strong cast and gives the role the heft that it truly deserves, carrying the weight of an outstanding film.
Dir: Alex Pettyfer
Scr: Tawni O’Dell
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Morrison, Robert Patrick
Prd: Ali Jazayeri, Palmer Murray, Amy Rodrigue, Simon Wetton
DOP: Jarin Blaschke
Runtime: 101 mins
BACK ROADS, is in UK cinemas on November 15th