Part horror film, part coming-of-age tale, part romance, the adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ young adult novel “Bones and All” is a small marvel, unsettling and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s first project filmed in the United States, the film avoids many of the traps that befall international auteurs when they begin to work in this country. Without ever pressing too hard, he creates a portrait of 1980s small-town America being hollowed out by the forces of progress, zombie towns that leave few options for the young people growing up there.
Teenage Maren (Taylor Russell) has been abandoned by her father (André Holland), who can no longer deal with Maren’s condition of being driven to eat people. The film doesn’t belabor the specifics of this strange hunger, leaving it as a central enigma for Maren to grapple with; it makes her an outsider to society but also, in many ways, unknowable to herself. With a bit of cash, her birth certificate and a cassette tape on which her father tries to explain himself, Maren sets out in search of her mother, who she has never known.
Along the way, she encounters Sully (Mark Rylance), who has the same compulsion to cannibalism and seems eager to take her under his wing, but she prefers to travel on her own until she meets Lee (Timothée Chalamet). The two young “eaters,” as they call themselves, eventually attempt to stake out a semblance of normalcy and stability rather than staying on the road, until Sully reinserts himself into their lives.
The film is driven by a sadness, a mournful, haunted quality that covers even moments of freedom and joy. In this way, the film somehow combines Guadagnino’s interest in body horror that he explored in his version of “Suspiria” and the romanticism of his “Call Me By Your Name,” the film that helped shoot Chalamet to stardom.
“Bones and All” is the first film to really harness Chalamet’s rock-star red carpet magnetism. As he struts around a room singing along to KISS’ “Lick It Up,” it is electrifying, but when he turns on that same charm to pick up a carnival worker to make a meal of, it suddenly takes on a chilling resonance.
Russell makes a standout impression, building on the promise she showed in Trey Edward Shults’ 2019 “Waves.” Here she captures a sense of fear and confusion about her unspeakable compulsion, while also grappling with a sense of alienation from herself and the world. Wisely, Russell doesn’t try to match Chalamet’s charisma, but rather counters it with a quiet thoughtfulness and sense of inner conflict.
Screenwriter Dave Kajganich, who previously collaborated with Guadagnino on “A Bigger Splash” and “Suspira,” stays true to the spirit of DeAngelis’ novel while making decisive changes. Most notably, he flips the parental structure from the book where Maren was abandoned by her mother to go off in search of her father. The switch pays off in Chloë Sevigny’s shattering single scene as Maren’s mother.
The film’s road-movie structure allows for a number of brief but decisive performances. Michael Stuhlbarg plays a disconcerting fellow feeder the couple meet along with filmmaker David Gordon Green in a particularly disturbing turn as a Renfield-like hanger-on. Jessica Harper brings a bitter poignancy to Maren’s grandmother, a woman who has tried and failed to move past the deep pain and regret of her life.
Special notice should go to costume designer Giulia Piersanti, working for the fifth time with Guadagnino, who captures a believable thrift shop glamour for both Russell and Chalamet, while fashioning Rylance into something both creepy and mundane. The Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, working for the first time with Guadagnino, create a delicate, wistful score, including the tender ballad “(You Made It Feel Like) Home,” which provides a fitting final piece of punctuation.
Like the best young adult fiction, “Bones and All” is sneakily simple, revealing itself to have unexpected depth and layers. Young love lingers, remaining in a special, secret place in the heart, and so too does this movie. By the end it swallows you whole.
‘Bones and All’
Rated: R, for strong, bloody and disturbing violent content, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 18, AMC The Grove 14, Los Angeles; AMC Century City; in general release, Nov. 23