In 2008, English-American actor Alex Pettyfer auditioned for Adrian Lyne’s Back Roads, an adaptation of Tawni O’Dell’s bestselling 2000 novel, an Oprah’s Book Club pick. It took ten years to make, but Pettyfer finally stars in the film, which he also produced and directed, a grim, morose drama about a dysfunctional family trying to hold on after tragedy. Pettyfer (I Am Number Four, Stormbreaker) is Harley Altmyer, a grim, morose twenty-year-old who has to take care of his younger siblings after their mother, Bonnie (Juliette Lewis), is sent to prison for killing their father. Moving almost painfully slowly and saying very little, barely opening his mouth when he mumbles, Harley works at the local grocery store, having given up college to raise his three sisters: the adorable, smart-beyond-her-six-years Jody (Hala Finley), the mysterious, perennially glum twelve-year-old, Misty (Chiara Aurelia), and promiscuous sixteen-year-old Amber (Nicola Peltz), who taunts Harley with her overt sexuality and bold threats to run away with older men. Harley is like an outsider in his own life until he falls for Callie Mercer (Jennifer Morrison), a thirtysomething married mother, and the two get involved in a dangerous affair that consumes Harley. Meanwhile, he attends his regular sessions with Dr. Betty Parks (June Carryl), a therapist trying to get him to open up about himself and the family’s sordid past, and speaks with the sheriff (Robert Patrick), who has an important question for him.
Back Roads is a frustrating melodrama, with plot points arriving at a snail’s pace, like the words coming out of Harley’s mouth. When the big twists come, they are surprising and unexpected and bring the story together just as it’s about to fall apart. Too many of the situations push the bounds of credulity, particularly involving Harley and Callie, but there are also some surprising, deeply felt moments, like Harley’s reaction when he catches Amber having sex on the living room couch. Cinemaphotographer Jarin Blaschke favors shots of Harley seen from behind, standing rigid and still, unsure of his next move. The script, by O’Dell and Lyne, loses focus, though the final fifteen minutes or so provide thrills and chills. The film, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, will have you wanting to reach out and hug Harley while also pushing him away, a troubled soul who may already be a lost cause.