Back Roads (3 stars)

Back Roads

Actor Alex Pettyfer makes his directorial debut with a gritty, well-performed drama

Back Roads is the directorial debut of Alex Pettyfer, the British actor and model who first rose to fame in 2006's Stormbreaker – a disastrous attempt to create a teen espionage franchise – then went on to headline high-profile duds like Beastly and I Am Number Four. Indie movies offer redemption to genuine talents, and Back Roads is a decently made drama, allowing Pettyfer the director the chance to hand a moody role to Pettyfer the actor.

Set in rural Pennsylvania in the early 90s, the film sees Harley Altmyer (Pettyfer) left in charge of his three younger sisters in the aftermath of his mother (Juliette Lewis) going to jail for his father's murder. Eldest sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) is a sexually active rebel who arouses protective feelings, and when Harley seeks solace with married woman Callie (Jennifer Morrison) he sets in motion a series of events that lead to a bloody demise for one of the characters.

Back Roads adopts some noir conventions, starting with Harley being questioned by a no-nonsense cop (Robert Patrick), and with Callie resembling a femme fatale. But unlike the comparable Winter's Bone, Back Roads sticks hard with the domestic focus, and loses momentum as Harley develops a cathartic relationship with a psychologist that doesn't fit the otherwise folksy narrative. The script – co-written by the author of the acclaimed original novel, Tawni O'Dell, with veteran director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) – fails to transcend the obvious clichés, and there are patches where the story feels rote.

And yet, as a first feature, Back Roads has its moments. Pettyfer deserves at least some of the credit for the strong supporting performances, from Lewis in particular, and for managing to invest Harley with an embittered, rough edge. It's a downbeat tale of hardscrabble existences that delivers intermittently intense drama.

Available to watch on demand from Mon 6 Jul.

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