Dir/scr. Nicholas Verso. Australia, 2016, 112 mins.

Following closely in the footsteps of fellow Australian coming-of-age film Girl Asleep, writer/director Nicholas Verso’s evocative feature debut conjures a distinctive teen tale that flits between suburban adolescent hijinks and something more hallucinatory.  Boys in the Trees demonstrates an increasing willingness to experiment with genre boundaries and different ways to tell familiar narratives.

Working with cinematographer Marden Dean and acting as his own editor, Verso showcases a command of style

Set for release in Australia in late October to capitalise on its Hallowe’en theme, Verso’s melancholic, supernaturally-infused horror could also garner modest interest and festival play in international markets.

Set in 1997 with attentive production design and a well-selected, nostalgic soundtrack to match, the ’80s influences of Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner and Joe Dante are evident here and are likely to provoke comparisons to Netflix’s recent hit Stranger Things, although the mood is more contemplative.

Aspiring photographer Corey (Toby Wallace) seems mismatched with his skater thug mates led by bully Jango (Justin Holborow). He’s hesitant as they pick on outcast Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), but not enough to stop a trick-or-treating attack on his house. It’s only as the group drinks and smokes in a graveyard, and Corey warms to classmate Romany (Mitzi Ruhlmann), that he veers off in his own direction. Crossing paths with Jonah on the way home, the former childhood buddies rekindle one of their favourite games.

Walking, talking, telling spooky tales and testing each other’s fears used to be their chosen pastime, and now they’re older, it feeds into the anxiety of leaving behind their tree-climbing, costume-wearing youth. And, as the fateful, formative night wears on in a wave of conversation, pranks, memories and realisations, the line between their stories and reality — and between past, present and future, as well as life and death — starts to blur.

Working with cinematographer Marden Dean (Fell) and acting as his own editor, Verso showcases his command of style; that he also works in theatre design is telling. Contrasting colour and darkness, he leaves an un-nerving imprint and his music video-like sections also make an impact, especially when cannily cutting scenes of bike-riding kids wearing clown masks into a dream-like montage to Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People. A romantic moment cognisant of the popularity of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet with Aussie teens at the time also stands out, layering the sounds of Garbage with a balcony scene.

That said, not everything hits the mark. Both the journey and the destination remain pivotal, but Boys in the Trees’ 112-minute length meanders. And while the script won the NewDraft Award at New York’s NewFest in 2011, the dialogue often sounds too knowing and obvious. Performances also vary, though The Last Time I Saw Richard lead Wallace, Dark Shadows’ McGrath and ex-Home and Away star Ruhlmann display a mix of richness and subtlety whether traversing more realistic or fantastical territory.

Production company: Mushroom Pictures

International sales: Mushroom Pictures, bethany.jones@mushroompictures.com.au

Producer: John Molloy

Executive Producers: Michael Gudinski, Ian Kirk, Mick Molloy, Kevin Maloney, Jon Adgemis, Mark Morrissey

Cinematography: Marden Dean

Editor: Nicholas Verso

Music: Shinjuku Thief

Production Designer: Robert Webb

Costume Designer: Erin Roche

Cast: Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath, Mitzi Ruhlmann, Justin Holborow