Secrets can bind families together, but when the truth reveals something far too disturbing to acknowledge, they can fall apart with disastrous consequences. For his directorial debut, actor Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four, Magic Mike, Elvis & Nixon) examines such a dissolving family in Back Roads, a dark, claustrophobic thriller that stays on your mind long after viewing.
Pettyfer plays Harley, a young man tasked with caring for his three younger sisters after his mother (Juliette Lewis) has gone to prison for murdering their father. He works two menial jobs to keep a roof over their heads while struggling in the role of a parent. Amber (Nicola Peltz), the nymphomaniac older sister, butts heads with him at every turn while Misty (Chiara Aurelia) obsesses with guns and Jody (Hala Finley), the youngest, innocently goes about being a little girl. Their deceased father was an abusive tyrant who used them as punching bags. Harley suffers from panic attacks and sees a motherly psychologist, who tries to work him through his issues, but he falls for Callie (Jennifer Morrison), a bored housewife in a dead-end marriage. They bond over art and begin a sordid affair. Finally, a revelation by his mother during a prison visit sets off a chain of events that completely destroys all that remains.
“…a young man tasked with caring for his three younger sisters after his mother has gone to prison…”
Though slightly too old for the part, Pettyfer is spot on in his portrayal of Harley, a kid with no ambition and too much responsibility who’s more concerned with having sex than paying the property taxes. Peltz’s Amber brilliantly crosses the sibling boundary. At first, the way she flaunts her sexuality at Harley makes you think she’s a step- or half-sister until you realize she is his closest blood relative. As Misty, Aurelia remains detached, her behavior off in a way that just makes you uncomfortable. Finley is in the middle of it all as Jody, wide-eyed and craving love. Finally, there’s Morrison, who exudes bored compliance while using her skills to get what she wants.
Along with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Pettyfer keeps the shots uncomfortably tight, making us feel Harley’s suffocation as he blindly attempts to run a family. He only really gets to breathe in his psychology sessions, but then he’s forced to deal with a perverse reality outside of his control.
By the time the final shot takes the screen, you’re left wondering why Harley accepts the road he has chosen. Obvious answers spring to mind, like protection, wanting and escaping. A fourth may emerge the next day, however, with an answer of prevention.
Then you find yourself still thinking about it a week later.
Back Roads (2018) Directed by Alex Pettyfer. Written by Tawni O’Dell and Adrian Lyne. Starring Alex Pettyfer, Jennifer Morrison, Nicola Peltz, June Carryl, Robert Patrick, Juliette Lewis, Chiara Aurelia and Hala Finley. Back Roads premiered at Tribeca Film Festival as a Spotlight Narrative.
4.5 out of 5 stars