It all starts so innocently: the invitation to a sleepover. The invited wants to go, but her father won’t let her. Not in a million years. He’s the type who installed a barrel bolt on her bedroom door. He should have thought more about the window.
The invited is Maren (Taylor Russell), an 18-year-old in desperate need of connection. She finds it, sort of, at the classmate’s sleepover. Quiet pop music plays; girls paint their nails. It’s all very woozy. Maren’s classmate invites her under the coffee table, and the two girls snuggle close, their voices dropping low and intimate. The classmate shows off her freshly painted fingernail to Maren. Maren’s eyes gloss over as she tenderly opens her mouth and draws the finger in. The image is soft and yellow and warm. It looks like love. Then Maren bites down. Hard.
Bones and All, the latest from Italian maestro Luca Guadagnino, spends its entire 130-minute runtime moving between tones with ease: Glowing nostalgia one second, grisly horror the next. Perfect for a coming-of-age story of cannibalistic lovers on the run.
Maren’s thirst for flesh is nothing new. Dad (André Holland) has kept the two of them on the move for years, in and out of rundown trailers and backwoods towns. But now Maren is legally an adult, and he’s out. He cuts her loose and leaves a cassette tape confession and a couple of bucks. Dad doesn’t know why Maren has peculiar feeding habits, but Mom might. So Maren hits the road and crosses paths with a couple more “eaters” (Mark Rylance and Michael Stuhlbarg), a poser (David Gordon Green) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a floppy-haired eater with a lot of brotherly guilt and some deep-cut knowledge of KISS.
Chalamet is outstanding as Lee. His ability to remain silent and still, only to snap off lines like he stepped out of a screwball comedy, is half his charm. Sincerity is the other half — not bad, considering he kills and consumes to get by.
The source of the eaters’ hunger is never explained. At some points, screenwriter David Kajganich — working from Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 YA novel — presents their appetite as a sexual metaphor with talk of first times, the intimacy of “drying off” and the phrase “bones and all,” i.e., the consumption of everything. But the presence of the poser suddenly shifts the cannibalism metaphor into something closer to addiction. Lee is called a “junkie,” and his wiry, grungy appearance isn’t helping his case.
None of the eaters in Bones and All look healthy — human flesh must be lacking in nutrients — but never mind, the movie isn’t remotely about that. It’s about love and family and urges you can’t quite suppress and the ones that make you feel alive. It’s sick and gross and oh-so-good. It’s also really, really dirty. Set in the mid-1980s, Bones and All is not the slick and hip and kitschy ’80s people are trying to recapture these days. Here, the world looks worn down and decaying. Maybe it always has been.
ON SCREEN: Bones and All opens in theaters Nov. 23.