'Back Roads' Review: Alex Pettyfer Makes A Promising Directorial Debut [Tribeca]

Alex Pettyfer, probably best known to audiences as "The Kid" in Magic Mike, always aspired to be more than just a thirst trap. In many ways, he might be too handsome for his own good. Pettyfer has been on the cusp of "happening" for a decade since landing the lead role in the Alex Rider series, a YA James Bond that came too close to Harry Potter and too far from Twilight and The Hunger Games. Following years of being sold as little more than a slab of meat to lust after, it's been an uphill battle for the actor to convince audiences that he has more to offer. With Back Roads, his first go-round in the director's chair, Pettyfer takes his future into his own hands.

As Harley Altmyer, Pettyfer strips away his on-screen charisma (perhaps even to the point of fault) to play an eldest sibling forced to care for three younger sisters after his mom lands in prison for the murder of their father. The film's focus from the outset seems to rest on Harley's ineffectuality as the caretaker and provider figure in the house. Since the film never shows us what he was like before the killing, it's tough to sort out his natural shyness and the hollowing out that occurred in the wake of tragedy. But the distinction hardly matters. When we see him in Back Roads, he can barely make eye contact with people when talking to them. It's never clear how old he is – Pettyfer easily looks a decade senior to his closest sister – but the emotional immaturity shines through.

His only refuge takes the form of Jennifer Morrison's Callie Mercer, the mother of one of his sister's friends. The illicit carnal pleasure gives Harley something to look forward to, something to live for – causing some friction since their trysts are Callie's escapes from spousal and parental responsibilities. Their sensual dialogue is painfully unadorned, occasionally registering as laughably on-the-nose.

The contours of the story fit the bill for a project by Adrian Lyne, the film's screenwriter whose name is synonymous with the erotic thrillers of the '80s and '90s. Yet Back Roads lacks the steaminess normally associated with Lyne's filmography. Pettyfer does not mine the torrid affair for lurid details. He correctly identifies the root of the fling in suburban desperation. Harley and Callie are so desperate for any kind of meaningful human connection that they will act in a borderline animalistic fashion to satisfy their body's needs.

The affair does not threaten the future so much as it reawakens the past. The family drama seemingly simmering on the backburner reaches a full boil while Harley indulges his sexual impulses. Back Roads is a haunting film about how trauma makes us strangers to ourselves, warping our emotions and resetting our internal compasses. These siblings endure enough strife for a lifetime, and they are left to sort through it without adult supervision. That Pettyfer can successfully pull off such a gear shift speaks to his talent as a director right out of the gate.

Back Roads deals with some thorny thematic material, and Pettyfer handles it with a refreshing lack of sensationalism. People who endure the kinds of domestic ordeals depicted in the film are usually otherized in some way, either handled with gloves on or made so outlandish that their struggles seem miles away from our own. There are no caricatures to be found in Back Roads – in fact, quite the opposite. At times, Pettyfer swings the pendulum a little too far towards normality. His timidity of the film approaching exaggeration or melodrama leads him to drain the film of some much-needed vitality. At times, Back Roads becomes a bit of a dour slog to sit through.

The film more or less redeems these sporadic off-key moments with its unexpected back half turns. We realize why these moments need to sneak up on us – they sneak up on the characters, too. The emotions on display in Back Roads are not the type that can be buried and disposed of. They must be acknowledged and dealt with. To Pettyfer's credit, these experiences and feelings receive the kind of considered complexity they deserve. And factoring in this being a freshman feature only makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

If anything, he should have more confidence in his abilities as a filmmaker. The title cards slapped on the beginning and end of Back Roads, explaining the set up and telegraphing the social importance, broadcast messages that the film itself already lucidly communicates. Pettyfer already has a strong eye for visuals and a knack for tough emotions. With time, he'll pick up the more complicated nuances of tone and mood.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10