'The Place Of No Words' Review: A Spontaneous, At Times Surreal, Journey That Doesn't Go Anywhere [Tribeca]

"Where do we go when we die?" When 3-year-old Bodhi Palmer asks his real-life father and mother (Mark Webber and Teresa Palmer) that question, it seems to denote the start of a profound journey of existential discovery. But in The Place of No Words, that journey takes some unexpected detours that don't always pan out.

Writer and director Mark Webber casts his own extremely photogenic family in The Place of No Words, a deeply personal exploration of grief and mortality. When young Bodhi asks his father that dreaded question about death, the duo embark on an imagined journey in which they are Vikings exploring a rugged Nordic landscape. But there's an endearing amateurish quality to The Place of No Words that gives the film an added layer of intimacy, while preventing it from being a truly escapist fantasy.

The Place of No Words unfolds like a lavishly realized playtime fantasy between father and son. We see their adventure begin in the real world, in which Mark takes his son Bodhi on a LARP-ing adventure that he has prepared with several of their family friends. He dresses an excited Bodhi up in a homemade cape, and the pair of them don plastic swords and shields to frolic with fairies and knights.

For Bodhi, it's the logical way to work out his complicated feelings about grief and mortality after his father is diagnosed with cancer. For Mark, it's a welcome distraction. Throughout the non-linear film, we see flashes of the family's home life, in sequences that are so uninhibited that the film feels at time like watching a home video. But there is a melancholy sitting just beneath the surface, as Mark and Teresa grow at odds over how to tell their son that his father may die.

But soon this reality begins to bleed into the happy fantasy adventure, as the dread sets in that Mark and Bodhi's quest can only end in one thing: Mark revealing to Bodhi his diagnosis. The magical elements morph into something a little darker, including the appearance of Jim Henson-esque monsters and an eerie doppelganger duo who simply stand off to the distance — a reminder to Mark that he cannot escape his own truth. There's also a short battle with futuristic soldiers, but that's just for the whimsy.

There's a dreamy air to The Place of No Words, despite the film's earthy, naturalistic makeup. Webber relies heavily on natural lighting and handheld shots in both the fantasy and real storylines, further blurring the two together. It's a filmmaking style that Webber dubs "fantasy reality cinema," in which the filmmaker attempts to bring out the inherent beauty of life, only to get caught up in the aesthetic of it all and lose sight of the message. It's an interesting dichotomy: in order to tell a deeply personal story without seeming inauthentic, The Place of No Words ends up coming off as cold and emotionally distant. The film plays out as an Ingmar Bergman homage by way of a Spike Jonze music video. Evocative imagery can only do so much.

Despite its shortcomings, The Place of No Words is sincere in conveying the power of stories. It stands apart from other escapist fantasies because of its iron grip on reality, and yet doesn't shy away from that childlike wonder that Bodhi gives to the role. At 3 years old, Bodhi can barely do more than babble lines that sound more like regular chatter between him and his dad than scripted dialogue. But that raw, unpolished veneer is what makes The Place of No Words so appealing, and gives it that spontaneous quality that finally succeeds in achieving that heartfelt intimacy.

Though I couldn't shake the feeling that Webber made The Place of No Words as a highly produced home video for his family, it does at least touch on the lofty themes he tries to tackle. While it never quite answers Bodhi's questions about death and mortality, The Place of No Words at least has fun taking us on a profound, bewitching journey.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10