A love story between sisters, the moderator said upon introducing Into the Forest, and indeed it was. Beyond that, it is a beautiful, feminine tale of change, as we watch the girls adapting to grief and isolation.
This movie, played at the IFC as part of a Toronto International Film Festival series entitled “See The North”, is a tribute to the feminine at its most natural- the femininity of motherhood, of sisterhood, of protection and survival. In their house, Eva (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and Nell (Ellen Page) remain untouched by the world…until men disrupt the stasis- first, Nell’s boyfriend Eli, who attempts to take Nell to Boston, possibly a city with power still, a trip that will take “eight and a half months”, and then Stan, an ex-store manager with more malignant intent.
“Children can’t be blamed for their parents’ mistakes!” screams Eva at Nell one point, ostensibly about an issue at hand but perhaps harkening back to their own father, whose mistake left them abandoned and alone in the middle of essentially nowhere. Orphaned in two stages, one years ago and now by their father’s error, the girls are left to seek solace in each other and bond in a way uninhibited by social obligation or pressure. So rare is a female bond uninterrupted in this manner that it brings to mind the idea of the “bromance”, for which there is no real equivalent for women. Their friendship transcends a familial bond and enters a realm of kinship where the film has these sisters looking into each other’s souls. Without the distractions of twenty-first century life, there is no way to avoid seeing people for who they truly are, as Nell’s boyfriend even mentions making an active effort to do with her,
Cli-Fi, or climate change fiction, a subgenre of the sci-fi movie, has made a real entrance as a genre in an era where people are genuinely afraid of a day like the one these girls experience- a day the lights go out forever. “No internet- it’s the Wild Wild West out there,” says Eli ruefully, to the worry of these girls, isolated yet safe from the rest of the world. The few entrances the real world makes end in heartbreak, first for Nell and then for Eva, Nell by association. It is a beautiful way of focusing on the psychology of codependence and survival, as we see these girls adapting to their new environment without the comforts of modern technology or society. People are now not to be trusted, and liabilities besides as their food supply dwindles.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is the way nudity is used to embody the ideal of the feminine and family rather than in sexual ways. During the single sex scene, focus is emphasized on movement rather than the bodies themselves, and in a scene of sexual assault nothing of Eva’s body is seen but her face, in contrast with many rape scenes in media today. The women of this film are never sexualized, and in an especially poignant moment of the film Nell comforts her elder sister topless, mimicking a position akin to La Pieta, one of the most iconic images of maternity. Indeed, Nell takes on the motherly role for much of the movie, ironically as Eva later becomes a mother. Nell is the rational one of the two, focused on saving food and gas even as Eva wants music to practice dance routines.
Music is a major component of the film, from Eva’s desperate pleas to use the last of their gasoline to play music to the crescendos whenever grief or loneliness overwhelms the girls. It is woven through the entire film, from beginning to end, so that there is never quite silence, just as how the girls are never quite alone. All nonmusical moments take place within the house, so that music is tied irrevocably to the nature all around the girls. When nature reclaims the house, the girls enter into the forest to live there, creating a shelter around a hollowed out tree.
Canadian director Patricia Rozema, answered questions after the screening. Of the premise of the apocalypse witnessed in the movie, which is based off a book with the same title written by Jean Hegland, she said: “I felt like there was something actually very haunting and realistic about not knowing. Because if the power went down right now, we wouldn’t know why. I felt like that was a kind of terror in an information-based age.” Describing the girls as “in the forest but not of the forest”, she spoke of trying to not focus on their gender. However, the two protagonists are female, in nature, and as nature is often referred to in the feminine it’s difficult not to see it that way. Indeed, Rozema later told me she feels that as a thorough feminist, she assumes feminism comes through in all her films. A particularly poignant quote followed:
“My mother told me when I was fifteen; you don’t like your looks? You’re not pretty enough it gets in your way, you’re not ugly enough that it gets in your way. Don’t get in your own way.”
So this film, while not ostensibly a feminist statement, doesn’t need to be. In existing as a piece that empowers women, that exalts the female body as an extension of the soul (such as in Eva’s dancing) rather than a sexual object, where men take on background roles yet are not vilified, it ends up feminist anyways. For celebrating women. Celebrating our inherent ability to survive, and to love while being strong.
The A24 release will be available on DirecTV June 23 and opening Theatrically on July 22.