It isn’t quite clear at first how the father and son have come to this place, but it’s a landscape so lush that it simply cannot exist on earth. They encounter otherworldly threats and beasts of an unknown nature — a witch who casts a deathly curse, a couple of what can only be described as “snot monsters,” a robot with whom a fierce, laser-heavy shootout erupts, a pair of knights in mortal combat. It should be important to note, however, that in no way is The Place of No Words a fantasy adventure. That’ll be given more clarity in a moment, but in the meantime, it is quite impressive how well-staged and compellingly executed the fantastical material is, as well as how it’s been given an atmospheric sense of whimsy.

That whimsy is entirely missing from the part of the story that acts as a framing device for the fantasy. This, by the way, is a film project that has been put together by a fairly close-knit group. The two adult stars are real-life married couple Mark Webber and Teresa Palmer, who play a couple in the movie, and their real eldest child, Bodhi Palmer, plays the fictional couple’s only child. Furthermore, Webber directed, wrote and edited the film, which also features minor but crucial roles for Eric Christian Olsen and Sarah Wright, close friends of Webber and Palmer who are also married and are playing a married couple. All these actors, meanwhile, have been credited under their own first names.

In a way, then, the story that unfolds is more confessional than narrative. In the “present,” Mark and Bodhi are far out in an unknown forest together, with no one and nothing to bind them to the earth. They work to survive the elements, which here means avoiding initially unseen threats of a mysterious sort (we eventually do see those monsters, called Grumblers and voiced by Webber, and the alien robot, none of which disappoint upon their revelation). In the “past,” which is communicated mostly through flashbacks, Mark, Bodhi and Teresa simply enjoy their time together. All the while, a dreadful truth closes in on this family and the audience.

This screenplay being Webber’s, a strong inference can be made on the part of the audience that the nature of the story is somehow personal. This is far from a subtle movie, of course, but its Malick-inspired flourishes are gently handled. Perhaps these events speak to the filmmaker’s fears regarding himself, his family, and his little world that has been created by himself and his family — fears of mortality, of parental abandonment, of paternal anxiety, and of the end of his marriage. The only way to consider this movie, then, is as a prayer of lament. Webber is working through a lot over the course of the movie, and his performance, as what amounts to a version of himself, is notable for all the actor is internalizing.

The miracle of the movie, though, is Bodhi Palmer, an actor who was only five years old at the time of production. Webber places the burden of the film’s emotional content on the shoulders of a child who reciprocates with an astonishingly nuanced turn that can only be attributed to the gifts of a complete natural. In one moment, Bodhi begins playing a game that’s meant to be silly. He brings the concept of death into it, and Mark responds by making it all a bit too real. Bodhi calls him on it in an utterly disarming exchange that might have been difficult to perform for adult actors, yet we’re in the hands of a boy who has quite the future ahead of him.

The Place of No Words constantly seems to be teetering on the edge of collapsing into itself, mostly for the way it combines magical realism, a fable-like quality and stark, downtrodden reality into a volcanic mixture of warring tone and perspective (Patrice Lucien Cochet’s cinematography communicates this by bringing that unknown landscape to thrilling life). All these things make the viewing experience more vibrant and alive than a movie that would have barely tried to combine them, and the tension between form and content, as a result, is genuinely compelling. A father’s love is on display for all to see, and Webber’s film captures that love with a fierce command of aesthetic and thematic integrity.

In a way, the story that unfolds is more confessional than narrative.
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Reality as Fable
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