‘Bones and All’ Review: A Young Adult Cannibalistic Love Story (New York Film Festival 2022)

The topic of cannibalism in media has been slowly incrementing in the last few years, from examples such as Steven Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk to Julia Docournau’s Raw and Mimi Cave’s Fresh. However, in each of these examples, we’ve seen the theme of cannibalism treated primarily in the context of a horror film. And while this might still be the case to a certain degree in Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagino’s latest film Bones And All, he decidedly added a level of tenderness and chaotic romanticism to his piece to differentiate enough from the fray. 

Bones and All follows the coming-of-age story of Maren (Taylor Russell) as she traverses America in the 80s to find her mother after a cannibalistic incident with a high school friend, where she attempted to eat off her finger. After being abandoned by her father, who couldn’t stand their hectic lifestyle anymore of escaping their town every time Maren had an ‘incident’, she sets off on her lonely quest to find her maternal figure. Along the way, she meets a strange, eccentric man named Sully (Mark Rylance), whom she discovers he’s like her, a cannibal. In this universe, they are called eaters, and Sully informs her of the many self-imposed rules about being one of them. She eventually abandons Sully after a cannibalistic event, and then she meets Lee (Timothée Chalamet), with whom she starts developing a strong bond as they both traverse a journey of self-discovery.

Bones and All is an adaptation of Camille DeAngeli’s book by the same name, and this film truly feels that it’s derived from a novel – in this instance, a young adult novel. The narrative’s structure, tone, and overall feeling have elements associated with movies adapted from books. Some basic tropes are the idea of these in-universe rules, like how to navigate being an eater, and the concept of the eater’s almost having so-called ‘powers’ like the ability to smell other fellow eaters. Other Young adult novel tropes include the misunderstood “bad boy” (showcased by Chalamet’s character), the first love, even the man who’s been hurt before, represented pretty clearly by Sully, and so forth. It leans heavily on these tropes but dresses them up in this universe filled with cannibals in 80s Americana. Because of this, I couldn’t shake the feeling this film reminded me a lot of another recent horror film, Mike Flannagan’s Doctor Sleep. Even the antagonists in Doctor Sleep felt, in one way or another, like cannibals; instead, they sucked souls as opposed to blood, but it checks out. Another film that it draws heavy inspiration from is Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It feels almost like a sort of evolution from Malick’s first film, albeit this film is less naturalistic and grittier than Malick’s since Luca Guadagnino inclined more towards making this variation a bit more romantic underneath the gruesome subject matter that it tackles. 

I appreciate the film not relying so much on gore to sell you on this narrative and its characters. It communicates a great level of restraint to pull back from showing you all the awful bits, exemplifying how great of a director Guadagnino is. As a result, the movie has a tense atmosphere for most of its duration since you never know what the ultimate fate of these star-crossed lovers will be. The coming-of-age narrative portrayed on screen is odd only because of the subject matter, but when you break it down into its primal parts, you realize it is pretty standard fare as far as the Young Adult genre is concerned. This is because of the general tropes that come with the Young Adult genre itself, such as dystopian worlds, young lovers, adults are adversaries and so on and so forth.  This is fine, however, because where it might be a little generic regarding the plot, it more than makes up for this with the performances, and we have four excellent ones to highlight. 

Taylor Russell sells a vulnerable, confused, and eager protagonist in Maren Yearly. You buy her journey wasting to figure out what makes her the way she is and the relationships she builds along the way with Sully and Lee. Russell has pretty good chemistry with Chalamet, whom he channels as a brooding, misunderstood young man who is only trying to find his way in the world. There are hints of queerness explored in his character, which could be sub-themes being explored in this film since we deal with characters who are ostracized from society for being “different”. Chalamet channels this man trying to figure himself out as both a young adult who doesn’t know what he was and having to deal with being a cannibal. He gravitates towards Russell’s character and has a need to protect and care for her. Mark Rylance as Sully is both endearing and ostensibly creepy. He’s also pretty hilarious in the film. With his very deadpan delivery and granddad energy he exudes, you can buy him as someone who wants to help but always leaves you a tingling behind your neck that he’s not what he seems. Rounding out this small Call Me By Your Name reunion, we have a small cameo by Michael Stuhlbarg as Jake. He’s only in the film for a few minutes but leaves a hell of an impression. Channeling serial killers of the 70s, he brings horrifying and spooky performance just by his demeanor and line delivery. It will send chills down your spine. 

The filmmaking prowess is very present, from the cinematography, the mood, the tension and pacing, all done efficiently by Luca Guadagnino, but not as stellar as his most recent works like Suspiria (2019) and Call Me By Your Name (2017). The film has some great comedic and horrific scenes, and Guadagnino navigates them pretty seamlessly, where one doesn’t overshadow the other. The camera work enhances and adds to the landscapes and shows a great effort in exploiting this 80s Americana. The film could have benefited from trimming a few minutes off, especially during some of the less interesting locations Maren and Lee traverse in their journey, which could tighten up the structure and make it flow even better., It doesn’t deter from the end result, but there are a few moments that don’t add anything new to the character arcs that they are unraveling before the big screen. 

The exploration of themes through the topic of cannibalism works for me – the idea of independence, of being shoved into adulthood using cannibalism as a metaphor for having to adapt, grow and mature, is pretty clear to me – and seems pretty easy to grasp. I don’t think the audience will have a hard time understanding the ideas the film is trying to bring forth. And the film isn’t as gory as you’d expect it to be, so I don’t believe it will turn off a lot of audience members who are curious about checking it out. 
Bones And All traverses a teenager pushed into adulthood through the lens of cannibalism pretty effectively. Not all the elements work for me, such as said cannibalism treated almost as a superhero power, but the relationships between characters and the performances elevate this beyond what this ultimately is, a simple Young Adult road trip romantic film about two star-crossed lovers finding themselves in each other. 

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