Film Review: In The Treetops (★★★)

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LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL: Teenage ennui is frequently a risky move for compelling cinema. Written, directed and starring Matthew Brown, not far from his teenage years at 24 (and a dead ringer for Billy Boyd), he depicts an insignificant chilly night with his real school pals. It’s DIY filmmaking, embracing a rugged documentary-like style. Brown is not interested in his own or his friend’s egos. In The Treetops is raw, irreverent and sensitive, detailing what coming of age genuinely feels like. This isn’t John Hughes nostalgia, nor is it depressing mumblecore.

The night may be insignificant for Brown’s William and his group of friends as they intend to pack into his car and hang out until the next morning, but it’s significant for an offscreen mutual friend who meets his demise on his drunken exit from a party the group decided to skip. Having not spoken to the friend in a long time, the news of his death strikes an odd chord for the group, made poignant while they bathe in a hot tub together. William struggles the most as he was his childhood friends with him in the past but no longer acquainted, angry at the odd apathetic friend.

The triviality of nights like this in the face of mortality hits a profound note. It provokes discussions on how to best spend your youth, especially in light of acknowledging the limitation of the relationships you have as a teenager and the obligations you have to them. The friend’s death looms over the characters for the remainder of the film, but it focuses on the classic setup of William having a crush on one friend, Alexa, but a close previously platonic relationship with a girl reveals to be a more ideal partner, played by Emma Corley Geer, a natural performer in an otherwise unforgiving style.

It’s a very loose film so it can be difficult to decipher what it’s trying to do at times. It’s deliberately aimless to recreate a normal night, simply observing. Dialogue is mumbled and whispered. Much of it feels improvised and thus loses efficiency, but the film has great structure for what it is. Conversations are dodged and left without payoff. It has a theme of the way teenage boys treat girls which is interesting, but it’s not fully explored. While it mostly has extremely rough low-light photography, some scenes are elegantly composed with a rich atmosphere. At least it’s refreshing to have a teenage film that doesn’t have its nose illuminated by an iPhone. Instead, it fights typical archetypes to tell its wistful story in a more honest way.

Despite the film’s brief 78 minutes, it has a marvellous gravitas that gives it a weight. The main thing that holds it back is the lack of character depth – we barely get to know background characters that spend the whole film onscreen, and therefore it has extraneous scenes that feel like padding. However, it’s a film about feeling ‘alone together’ so it’s appropriate that their presence is familiar but fleeting. On the strength on its finest memorable scenes, it’s impressive work for a filmmaker of his generation. The title is a fascinating example of his subdued insight as ‘in the treetops’ perhaps refers to a coddled youth unbraced for the fall down the tree. Look out for a bright future in independent cinema with Matthew Brown.