Druid Peak

This is the West.

This is the West.

(2014) Drama (One Small Thing) Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Wilson, Rachel Korine, Damian Young, Nathaniel Brown, Armand Schultz, Lanna Joffrey, George Joe Smith, Bernadette Cuvalo, Ian Jan Campbell, Rebecca L. Baldwin.. Directed by Mami Zelnick

Florida Film Festival 2014

Nature versus nurture is an ongoing debate to explain why some kids turn out to be okay and others turn out to be monsters. Is it an environmental thing that turns kids into bullies, or is it some DNA misfire inside them that makes them predisposed to that sort of behavior?

Whatever the answer is, Owen (Clark) is a bully. He seems angry at everyone and everything. He’s intimidating to his fellow students and is known to get physical. He lives in the coal country of West Virginia in a town which doesn’t have a whole lot going on. When his actions lead to a tragic incident, his fed-up mother and stepfather put him on a plane to Wyoming where he will stay with his taciturn father Everett (Wilson), who monitors the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park.

At first this seems like a match made in Hell. Owen is angry and surly – one of his first actions when he arrives in Wyoming is to steal some of his dad’s money – and his dad doesn’t seem too interested in being the nurturing sort. With there being even less to do around his dad’s isolated cabin than in West Virginia, Owen decides to go for a walk.

There he encounters a wolf – and by encounters I mean up close and by a wolf I mean not a Doberman. The encounter piques Owen’s curiosity and he begins to seek out the wolves in the wild. Before long he has become adept at tracking them – “thinking like a wolf,” as his father puts it. The curiosity grows into a genuine affinity.

Before long, Owen begins to exhibit some real changes. He has found something to care about and a purpose to his life. However, the world of wolves isn’t all running in the woods and howling at the moon. Local ranchers, embodied by McGill (Young), have some real concerns about wolves from the park raiding their livestock for a free meal. Owen also develops a bit of a crush on Zoe (Korine), McGill’s daughter. When the wolves are removed from the endangered species list, freeing local hunters the opportunity to go after them, things may never be the same for Owen or his father.

Zelnick, who has been producing and writing films for several years, makes her debut as a director here although you’d never know it. Her work on Druid Peak is as assured and efficient as if directed by someone with decades of experience. Every shot here matters and while there are the occasional beauty shots of the landscape, even those help set the tone for the film.

She wrangles a terrific performance from Treat, who has been a child actor for some time (and in a number of excellent films) and most recently appeared in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. He makes a good impression here starting Owen off as surly, bad-tempered and outright mean. The bully though morphs into an advocate for the defenseless and while the change might seem extreme taking place as it does over a single summer, both Zelnick and Clark make it organic and believable.

Wilson is a presence as Everett and while he has a kind of hippie eco-fanatic vibe to him, there is a practical core underneath. While I do wonder not so much why Everett and Owen’s mom split up but how they got together in the first place (which is explained neatly in the film by the way), I can see how Everett ended up in Wyoming. My own Wyoming experience is in the Eastern portion of the state where it is miles and miles of miles and miles, but my Colorado-bred wife assures me that the area in the Tetons, where this was filmed (near Jackson Hole but not in Yellowstone itself) is just as breathtaking as any in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

While the story takes a little while to get going – mostly as it is established what a rotten egg Owen is, the scenes of which might be a bit traumatic for those who have been bullied before – once the plane touches down in Wyoming the magic really begins. This is a very solid first feature and one which bodes well for some really great filmmaking down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Nice performance by Clark.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to get going. Bullying scenes may be disturbing to watch for those with similar life experiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and some acts of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Wilson is the older brother of Luke and Owen Wilson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Forev

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