Eleven-year old Atticus (Silas Yelich) grows up under the loving if overprotective thumb of his mother Nichole (Lili Taylor). Suspicious of “the state”, she bans TV from the house, grows her own food, and home schools Atticus in the hopes of teaching him self-sufficiency. Upon her unexpected death, Atticus takes her words to heart and flees into the Catskills wilderness, rather than fall into the hands of CPS.
The Cold Lands relies heavily on its actors to carry the story, and for the most part they rise to the challenge. Taylor makes Nicole a fascinating mixture of courage, fragility, and paranoia, but Yelich can be blank at times, his line delivery a resentful monotone. It’s only when Atticus starts living in the woods that Yelich hits his stride. Unhindered by dialogue he conveys wonder, loss, and fear (often all at once) through expression and body language, emotional storms crossing his face as he grapples with his new life. The cinematography comes into its own here as well, turning the forest into a world of beauty and danger, home to pristine white deer and trigger-happy tweakers. But Yelich and the cinematography, excellent as they are, don’t save the film midway through, as scene after scene of Atticus wandering around the woods threaten to take the film’s pace from meditative to monotonous.
Thankfully the arrival of Carter (Peter Scanavino), a jewelry-making pothead and drifter who takes Atticus under his wing, injects much-needed energy. To the wide-eyed Atticus Carter is an inspiration, the kind of independent individual he hopes to become. But Carter’s freedom comes with a price - he lives a day-to-day life, sleeping in his car or in abandoned buildings, mere steps from bankruptcy or arrest – and Scanavino’s masterful performance conveys how, beneath Carter’s free spirit, these worries weigh heavily on him.
Their growing bond ends up the heart of the film, as it becomes clear Atticus craves not the freedom Carter represents, but the companionship he provides. By the end, one senses the film is a subtle rebuke of Nicole’s beliefs; we rely on others more than we thing (or like to think) and there is no weakness in admitting it.