SXSW Review: Boyz In The Wood


After my screening, I left the theater smiling madly like a pretty girl I’d been crushing on in high school just texted me when I’d never given her my number. You know, broadly, too much teeth, nearly careening into things, like an idiot. That’s how happy seeing Boyz In The Wood made me. If this is Scottish cinema’s finest, please send me more and now. Granted, my expectations were low, my previous encounters with the genre having been limited to the wild undulations of Mel Gibson screaming in blue face paint in Braveheart. Come to think on it, not a Scottish film at all, not even a Scot playing the lead, not even an authentic accent.

Sure, the film and its maker-marketers describe itself thusly: “Set deep in the Scottish Highlands, Boyz In The Wood is an anarchic cocktail of generational politics, hip-hop loving farmers, and hallucinogenic rabbit shites.” I read it much like you just did, no doubt: well, that doesn’t tell me a f–king thing about this film, other than the fact that its title is the most thinly veiled allusion to Boyz n the Hood ever, and that it sounds like utter lunacy. Whelp, it’s not. It’s an earnest and forthright accounting of the 2 parts awesome 2 parts sauce cocktail that you’re about to enjoy.  Writer-Director Ninian Doff creates a genre (and expectation) subsuming trip that is magnificently constructed from open to close. Maybe I should have known from the moment the tightly engineered opening credits shook the room (and my bones loose), both visually and audibly, that’s what I was in for, but who could have imagined a film about psychotropic rabbit shites would be a masterpiece?

Boyz In The Wood
Director: Ninian Doff
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 8, 2019

Three no good urban youths are uprooted from their high school delinquencies and transplanted to the Scottish Highlands to complete a teamwork building and orienteering ‘award,’ one last chance to get straight or get booted out. Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) like to blow up turds and toilets and rap kicks. They’re chaperoned on their trip by Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris), a school institutional-type, and find themselves playing host to straight man Ian (Samuel Bottomley) who’s come along for the ride because he thinks it sounds more fun than punitive. Once there, Mr. Carlyle gives them a pep talk and drives away, telling the gang he’ll meet them at a campsite marked on a map he’s provided. 

Meet four clueless teens, alone in the woods, with the specter of ever-present death hovering over them. That’s what happens in films where teens go play in the woods isn’t it? In this instance, yes, it is. Many visual cues let us know that there’s something fishy happening up in this neck of the woods, and the fishy has nothing to do with teens necking. Instead, the highland hills are haunted by a pair of rogue senior citizens (The Duke played by Brit-beloved Eddie Izzard and The Duchess played by Scottish character actress Georgie Glen), escaped from the local community center, no doubt, dressed in their Sunday best grousing attire, and silliest of costume masks, these geriatric gummers are out for teenage blood.

What follows is a masterclass in subverting expectations at nearly every step. You expect three rough teens to bully one nice teen. You expect redneck farmers to murder any teenager who dares to set a foot or tip a cow on their shit-smeared fields. You expect the idiot of the group to be just that, an idiot.  You’d never expect that he’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an idiot savant of such enlightenment that he’s actually seeing reality play out hundreds of steps beyond what you or I might perceive. What sounds like lunacy from the mouths of babes proves to be prophetic heralding of the highest intellect and proves to be with the most righteous of comedic beats punctuated with hip hop beats at every turn.

Doff plays to his strengths throughout Boys In The Wood, expanding upon a well-established background as a music video director. By painting one of his wayward teens as a wannabe rap star, he provides an opening to insert some of the most clever musical scenes to grace a teenage horror-comedy ever. Not only are these dioramas seamlessly delivered, but their graphical, editorial, and musical trimmings are stitched throughout the film so cleverly that what they hint at never spoils what comes next and what comes next always surpasses what’s already transpired. In fact, Doff’s ability to weave narrative creativity through his editing choices are pure inspiration and elevate what might be an archetypal weekend laugh track waiting to happen to an art film posing as something less. 

His directorial instincts are so spot on, so in tune with our modern age and meme-drenched culture that it’s a wonder to behold, and little wonder that one departs a viewing smiling so giddily, one might be accused of consuming rabbit turds from the Scottish highlands. What’s with that, by the way? You’ll need to watch and find out. It’s not only the editing, or the graphical overlays and inspired animation or musical score, it’s the writing too. Gags that begin the film and seem to fade away reappear with a vengeance when you least expect and to great effect. 

IMDB calls BITW a comedy, but with the amount of portended murder, you might have expected otherwise. I was pleasantly surprised to find the film doesn’t embrace the modern urge to drench the mere mention of murder with gore. It is, for this fact, a comedy in the truest sense. While murder drives the action, humor drives its heart. Well, that and intelligence. I really cannot emphasize the subversive nature of BITW enough—it’s dedicated craft to know the rhythms of a film’s story, know where the rhythm engrained in an audience’s collective hive mind offer moments to change direction unexpectedly, and then to do something else entirely and with bold precision.  

It doesn’t hurt that Doff cast four stellar teenage talents to portray his expectation defying gang, nor does it hurt that Juneja brings DJ Beatroot to life by becoming the embodiment of a wannabe rapper, the kind that has secret, actual talent. Again, the scoring to compliment this character and this character’s narrative path are brilliant. Beatroot’s album title? Cocktales, of course. No surprise considering that this writer-director directed this:

There’s a lot I could say about the societal implications that the film delves into as well, especially with regards to local police forces and the men and women who populate them. Perhaps even small community mindsets as a whole. It’s all so brilliantly deconstructed and strung out as sister plot points to augment our main story that you realize it’s happening, but love it all even more for its presence. I’m gushing! I’m ranting. I want this film to find a distributor. I want it to be seen and enjoyed beyond the UK—it’s that fresh. It’s that good.