The most romantic movie of the year is a teenage dirtbag road trip featuring a couple of crazy cannibal kids colliding unexpectedly before embarking on a meander across the Midwest. It’s “Badlands” with ‘80s punks who feast on flesh, and one of the most moving and authentically beautiful love stories about the rarity that is finding yourself in someone else.
Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All” is a swoony tapestry of Americana dripping with gore, caked in viscera. David Kajganich, who wrote the screenplays for Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” and “Suspiria,” has adapted Camille DeAngelis’ award-winning young adult novel to the screen, a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to feature cannibalism, in all its gory detail. The luminous, yet steely Taylor Russell stars as Maren, a teenager “eater” who finds herself abruptly on her own after she’s abandoned by her father (Andre Holland), who simply can’t continue keeping his daughter’s cravings under wraps.
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Maren, equipped with only her birth certificate, some cash and a confessional cassette tape from her father, heads from Maryland to Minnesota on a bus, in search of her mother, finding different ports in the storm along the way. Most importantly, she discovers that she’s not alone. “I thought I was the only one,” she confesses to Sully (Mark Rylance), who sniffs her out at a rainy Ohio bus stop and offers her shelter, and food. Maren soon skips out on Sully and links up with Lee (Timothée Chalamet), whose scent she picks up in an Indiana convenience store.
With his shredded denim and cherry Kool-Aid mullet, outsize attitude radiating from his rail-thin frame, Maren would have found Lee irresistible despite the distinct odor of eater. Following in the grand tradition of the great cinematic lovers with blood and love on the brain, the pair hit the road in a stolen pickup, driving in search of family with whom they can never stay.
Guadagnino creates a warmly worn cinematic world for these two to love and live in. Elliott Hostetter’s dense and detailed production design feels deeply real, the peeling paint and overstuffed couches all of a piece. There’s a delicious grain and texture to Arseni Khachaturan’s 35 mm cinematography that captures the simple beauty of the places they pass through, and Marco Costa’s editing skips and stutters with an intoxicating playfulness and eerie rhythm, often mimicking Maren’s vision, rendering surreal dream sequences into hellish montages.
The clothes tell the story in Giula Piersanti’s costume design: Maren’s floaty floral dresses and combat boots showcase her femininity and toughness. Lee sports women’s blouses and cardigans — discarded items from victims we never see — over his grimy tank tops and rope-belted jeans, all fluid sexuality and androgynous swagger.
Maren and Lee hunger for human meat, and are therefore cursed with a necessary solitude — intimate relations are tinged with danger and bound by an eater’s ever shifting and specific moral code about whom to devour and when. The vulnerability that binds Maren and Lee together isn’t sexual (though there is certainly an eroticism to supping on slippery sinew together), but knowing, and accepting, each other’s darkest, most horrifying secrets. “Am I bad?,” whimpers Lee, needing Maren’s understanding, and her love, as she needs his.
Despite the transgressive horrors at the center of “Bones and All,” Guadagnino delicately shepherds us into a world that we don’t want to leave at the end. Period-appropriate new wave needle drops intersperse Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ largely acoustic, piano-driven score, which alternately soothes and riles, rumbling and buzzing dissonantly when something is not quite right, as if Maren’s intuition has a sound. It culminates with an achingly beautiful lullaby, in the film’s most romantic and tragic moment, sung by Reznor, that encapsulates everything that this film expresses about the kind of love that every human being needs: just another person that feels like home, bones and all.