‘Back Roads’ review: ‘Stormbreaker’ star Alex Pettyfer stretches new muscles in a promising directorial debut

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14 years have passed since Alex Pettyfer got his shot at stardom in junior James Bond spy romp Stormbreaker. Despite the film’s poor reception, Pettyfer caught the eye, threatening to turn into a handsome leading man with a sensitive disposition.

He’s had a range of hits and misses since – and recently took fate into his own hands by starting an independent production outfit. His intention is to adapt books for the big screen, the first of which is Back Roads, based on a script that Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) first wrote when Pettyfer was attached to the project in the late 2000s. With the screenplay in his hands and nobody available to direct it – and with a newly-experienced head on his 30-year-old shoulders – Pettyfer decided to make it his directorial debut.

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Back Roads is set in rural Pennsylvania, in a small town where nobody goes anywhere and nothing ever really happens. Bonnie Altmyer (Juliette Lewis) is in prison, two years into a life sentence for murdering her husband, leaving her son, Harley (Pettyfer), to look after his trio of sisters.

Harley should be heading to college and enjoying his 20s. Instead, he finds himself stacking shelves in a supermarket and making just enough cash to keep a roof over his family’s heads. Frustrated and confused by his lot in life, Harley is trying to forget a childhood he can’t come to terms with, and sisters he doesn’t understand. Weekly therapy sessions and an affair with a married neighbour begin to unlock the secrets that haunt Harley, reaching into the mystery of his family’s past.

Pettyfer shows great restraint in his direction, aided by Jarin Blaschke’s patient cinematography, favouring long takes with slow, dolly shot close-ups and static panoramas depicting bleak surroundings.

Back Roads
Jennifer Morrison and Alex Pettyfer in ‘Back Roads’. Credit: Alamy

By his own account, Pettyfer has toned down the sexual tension and black comedy that drives the plot of Tawni O’Dell’s novel. This is a story about trauma, about children and adults dealing with abuse, and Pettyfer is keen to make the results of that trauma the focus, albeit a little heavy-handedly at times. A lack of genuine surprises and limited development of its subjects leaves Back Roads as neither murder mystery nor interesting character study.

Still, Pettyfer’s performance is deeply engaging. All pent-up rage and tension, he plays the part so understated it almost swings back around to verge on melodrama – but not quite. His scenes with Jennifer Morrison as love interest Callie, and Juliette Lewis as his locked-up mother crackle, and his on-screen relationship with eldest sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) rings true, even if the plot takes them in a direction that doesn’t.

It’s particularly hard to peg any 20-something character played by former-model Alex Pettyfer as a virgin. Still, he gives the film everything he’s got, and while it’s not quite enough to work here, he displays plenty of promise as a filmmaker. Hopefully he’ll find a script that fits him a little better in the future.

Details

  • Director: Alex Pettyfer
  • Starring: Nicola Peltz, Jennifer Morrison, Juliette Lewis
  • Released: July 6 (Digital)

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