A lot of times, when I’m looking for a movie to view, I will go to Rottentomatoes.com and use their DVD finder. You can pick a genre, percentage of freshness, decade, number of reviews, MPAA rating, etc. It’s a pretty thorough system, really (though not without flaws). And then I will wade laboriously through the choices, clicking, researching, and eventually adding way too many in my Netflix queue.
During the month of October, when I am looking for horror films, I usually set the bar fairly low. Horror is a widely disregarded genre after all, and often times fairly so.
It was during one of these searches I found “Wilderness Survival for Girls.” Sitting at 50% with only six reviews, there was no real meat to speak of. The starring actresses were all nobodies, even seven full years after the film’s release (2004). The directors had gone on to direct only documentaries, and the synopses all read like standard, “traumatized girls out for revenge” plots. Here are the Rottentomatoes and Netflix rundowns:
RT -- The thriller “Wilderness Survival for Girls” concerns a trio of high school girls who end up keeping a stranger captive in the woods
Netflix - -Three high school girls come to terms with their fears and discover their capacity for cruelty when a menacing stranger stumbles in to their cabin during an overnight camping trip deep in the woods.
I instantly thought of something like “I Spit on Your Grave,” which is not really my cup of tea. But after reading reviews describing it as “brainier” and an interesting “psychological thriller,” I added it to the queue.
At the beginning of the film I thought it might instantly be undone by cheap filming, bad acting, amateurish direction and stereotyped characters. However, as the film progresses and the leads are given more dialogue, the leads really settle into their respective parts. Some of their personality traits are still exaggerated, but not to a point where they seem satirical.
The film itself is super low-budget. The ending in particular, which takes place in the dead of night and in the middle of nowhere is, unfortunately, so painfully underproduced you can hardly tell what’s going on. It’s safe to say the directors aren’t young Finchers or Boyles. Here the idea is more important than the style.
Wilderness Survival for Girls is about three friends, Ruth, Deborah and Kate, in a remote cabin. A male stranger, Ed, does stumble in to their cabin one night. And, in accordance with a crime that happened in the woods some years earlier, the girls believe Ed might be the perpetrator. They take him captive, although he claims to simply be a homeless man who has been crashing at the unused cabin for years.
But that’s not really what the movie is about.
The movie is about the relationship between the three girls. It’s about their uncertainty as they graduate from high school and move on to, or, in the case of Kate, not move on to college. In particular it’s also about the realization of their sexuality and their uncertainty about men. These latter two ideas are often reflected and explored through interactions with Ed, their hostage.
There are some tense moments in the film, so the movie does parade as a thriller. Still, the movie, as I viewed it, was almost pure allegory, with Ed being a plot device. An important part of the film, but if you wanted, you could write him off as not even real, simply a personification of each girl’s acute discomfort towards the opposite sex.
I believe the filmmakers wanted to make a coming of age story, but wanted to tone down the melodrama. Holding a bum hostage in the wilderness is certainly a different backdrop for the emotions explored here.
Some people might think making an argument Ed isn’t even real is silly. I would counter that every character in a fictional piece is a construct of somebody else’s imagination, so isn’t arguing about how “real” they are kind of silly as well? He's in the film, so he's "real," but he's more device than character. It’s a disconnect I’ve had in a lot of films lately, in particular Aronofsky’s work. Maybe I’m reading too much in to it here. Then again, after sitting through the entire piece, I find it just as hard to believe the filmmakers thought they were simply making a taught thriller. It’s worth investigating for yourself, I think. Maybe you’ll enjoy a well written film working on multiple levels. Maybe you will be given a reason to derisively mock my exaggerated subtext. And maybe, just maybe, neither.