Burn Your Maps, co-written and directed by Jordan Roberts, is finally making its way to U.S. screens after making its debut on the festival circuit in 2016. It stars Vera Farmiga and Jacob Tremblay as a family whose life is thrown for a loop when the son begins to believe that he is a Mongolian goat herder.
This film is just as unusual (and perhaps even more misguided) than it sounds. In many ways, the movie’s idea of the protagonist being born in a different country than where he believes he belongs feels like a not-so-subtle transphobic message. Perhaps this is just reading into the situation too deeply, but the story simply doesn’t seem like it was in good taste.
The protagonist is developed in a way that is very compelling, and we want him to succeed in finding meaning and purpose in life, but the rest of the characters are not written in a particularly deep or complex way. There is an attempt to make the protagonist’s parents more sympathetic by referencing that one of their children died, but this idea is never fully explored.
Furthermore, the subplots in the film seem completely unnecessary. A subplot about the parents’ failing marriage (implied to be a possible cause of the protagonist’s “epiphany”) isn’t addressed effectively, with a few marriage counseling sessions being our only glimpse into their lives. Another character, an immigrant learning English in the protagonist’s mother’s class, also feels tonally out-of-place.
That said, the actors do a good enough job with their roles despite the weak script. Farmiga and Tremblay have great chemistry together, and play their characters in a way that is fittingly subtle. Tremblay in particular could have been ridiculous and over-the-top, but his performance instead feels subdued to the point that it could almost be realistic.
For a majority of the film, the filmmakers are unable to achieve the intended levels of emotional resonance. Only at the end of the movie, when it becomes something like a more earnest road movie, does the film succeed at pulling at your heartstrings. Still, the goofy nature of the concept and movie as a whole is often overwhelming.
The comedy in the film is entirely distracting. The ways in which the movie attempts to get laughs out of the audience seem like they do not fit into a film otherwise appearing to be aimed at family audiences. For example, the comedic relief character is initially set on making a movie about a sex-obsessed teen. Why does this have a place in a movie about a young boy coming into his own cultural identity?
It is on a technical level that the film is most impressive. The cinematography is so beautiful that you almost wonder whether making this movie was nothing more than an excuse for the cast and crew to take a trip to Mongolia. In fact, the scenery and the way in which it is shot is so gorgeous that it can often divert your mind from how messy the script is.
Burn Your Maps certainly has a fair share of flaws, but it is well-acted and mostly entertaining. The film does get points for having a unique premise, but that premise often falls flat and doesn’t feel politically correct at times.
Burn Your Maps is now in theaters and on VOD.