Set in the region of Upstate New York and New England, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands tells the story of a sheltered teen-aged boy making a transition to new adult role models after the death of his mother. When the movie opens, Atticus (Silas Yelich) and his mother, Nicole, (Lilly Taylor) are living off the grid. She is home schooling him, but he is entering a stage where socialization with his peers is important to him. They aren’t survivalists, but are getting by without electricity and supplementing the income she earns as an office cleaner by recycling and beekeeping. It is an existence without many conveniences, but hardly a simple life. Beyond financial pressures, Nicole has diabetes and feels hassled by public health nurse who believes she as complications from the disease that may need additional treatment. She is managing to hide the pressure she faces from Atticus, while devoting her life to his education and cultivating his values.
At 14, Atticus is starting to chafe a little and the constraints of his mother’s rules. What in the regular middle class household would be minor conflicts of transitions from childhood to adolescence involve possible upheavals of the life she has chosen them to lead. Issue like giving violent video games as gifts, or cupcakes that are supposed to be composted but end up being eaten, or TV sets found at the side of the road cause problems that she is able to diffuse for now, but those could develop into much larger conflicts as Atticus strives for independence. A more troubling issue is that he returns from a friend’s birthday party with a filched necklace. For now, life with his mother is all that he has known and it comes as a shock when his mother passes away.
The remaining two-thirds of the film is split between a period which Atticus spends alone in the woods hiding from authorities who are trying to locate him and development of a relationship with a self-appointed guardian, Carter (Peter Scanavino). What these sections cover is just how much of what Nicole has taught Atticus will be useful to him going forward. He doesn’t have the survival skills necessary to live off the land as a un-socialized wild boy while concerned adults are hunting for him. Unlike animals, humans are able to seek out fire if they want to, and curiosity about a fire brings him back into contact with civilization in the form of Carter.
It is difficult to determine whether Carter or Atticus has appointed Carter the guardian, so will leave it up to the viewer. Carter is for all intents and purposes a homeless man and irresponsible, but Atticus interprets Carter’s lack of employment prospects as freedom. It is interesting to watch both characters learn about each other and the development of Carter into someone who at least resembles an adult sometimes. Carter would be a lousy parent by most objective measures, but the force of having someone around him who admires him despite his failings brings out some sense of responsibility not to hurt Atticus emotionally by handing him over to social services or just leaving him somewhere for someone else to take care of. It may not be the best “family” situation, but Carter’s guardianship is probably what Atticus wants right now, even though Carter, I think realistically, is conflicted about taking in a stray kid. The pair become close enough by the end of the film, however, that a separation is going to be painful, as the final scene makes clear. Nicole has fashioned a pretty decent son; it’s going to be up to Carter to fashion himself into someone the authorities will allow to raise him to adulthood.
The Cold Lands isn’t the most heartwarming film, but it is far from heartless. Taylor, Scanavino and especially Yelich get the most out of the screenplay. Yelich is especially good in the second half of the film, having to show trust, mistrust, a desire to be free and a fear of abandonment, often in the same scene. I don’t know if the film breaks any new ground on what it means to be a family or a good parent, and it certainly isn’t at the level of Boyhood on the topic of growing up in a broken family, but the film is a nice diversion from other teen dramas.
***1/2 of five
IMDB: The Cold Lands