Out of the Woods (2016)

The new film from underground film icon Antero Alli offers a challenging consideration of identity.  It is a provocative endeavor that mixes mysticism with sharp satire and rueful emotional drama, and the result is a profound statement on how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others.

The framing aspect of the story is an interview between a documentary filmmaker and a reclusive mentalist named Charlie Atterbury, who abruptly walked away from a career that promised untold riches. But this was not the first time that Charlie mysteriously disconnected himself from the world. As a child, Charlie disappeared into the woods for three days, and he was befriended and protected from harm by a spirit that he called Sylvani. Was this incident a childhood fantasy or was Sylvani a hitherto unknown entity that only became visible to the boy?

As an adult, Charlie seems to have fallen into a good life: he lives in San Francisco with a lovely girlfriend and enjoys a career as an underwear model. Yet he seems strangely detached from everything and everyone, and he abruptly walks out on a lucrative modeling gig and his relationship to return to a solitary sojourn in the forest. But the trip takes a dangerous turn when he falls and suffers a head injury that leaves him with amnesia. A religiously obsessed traveler in the woods initially mistakes him for a zombie, but quickly discovers that Charlie now has the ability to read minds. A chance encounter with a talent scout stranded in a broken down card puts Charlie on an unlikely road in show business, complete with a new name (“Bill Shiner”) and a new focus as a mentalist performing in nightclubs. However, more detours eventually steer Charlie away from show biz glory.

Much of the strength of “Out of the Woods” comes in the subtle performance by Malachi Maynard as Charlie. While offering a deceptively timid demeanor that seems somewhere between blandness and catatonia, Maynard’s strikingly handsome yet perpetually distant Charlie serves as a magnetic platform for the other characters to attach their various neuroses and schemes. From his emotionally clingy girlfriend (Alicia Ivanhoe) to the eccentric traveler in the woods (Luka Dziubyna) to the oleaginous agents (Andrew Gurevich and Robin Coomer) that groom Charlie into a nightclub star, everyone sees Charlie for what they want to see, but not for what he really is. The ensemble cast provides richly textured interpretations of unfortunate souls unable to moor their needs to someone that cannot see them for what they are, if only because he is unable to establish his own self-identity.

“Out of the Woods” carries the virtues of Alli’s canon: handsome cinematography (by the filmmaker), a screenplay that is not afraid to take the viewer into difficult intellectual terrain (after all, how often do you see an anthropomorphic tree spirit in a contemporary film?) and devious flashes of dry humor, particularly when Charlie is positioned into using his mentalist powers for audiences. And Sylvi Alli, the filmmaker’s real-life and reel-life collaborator, is here as elusive Sylvani and as one of the creative forces on the haunting soundtrack.