‘Bones and All’ review: All shock and no value

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“Bones and All” presents the ultimate conundrum for a critic: How fairly to evaluate a movie that does a terrific job adapting its source material, while finding that source material equal parts shallow and revolting?

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With its aestheticized gore, moody teenage angst, and knowing references to such classics as “Badlands,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Near Dark,” Luca Guadagnino’s visualization of Camille DeAngelis’s young-adult novel plunges audiences into a gross but occasionally engrossing slough of cognitive dissonance. We meet the story’s protagonist Maren (Taylor Russell) as a shy teenager, hoping to make friends at what seems to be a new high school. Sure enough, she’s invited to join some cool girls at a sleepover, where they proceed to do each other’s nails; shown the manicure of one of her new acquaintances, Maren looks at it admiringly, takes the girl’s finger into her mouth and bites down. Hard.

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Maren, it turns out, is a cannibal, and once her panicked father (played by André Holland) realizes what has happened, he accepts that he can no longer regulate her worst impulses; he leaves her with a note and her birth certificate, which will come in handy later. Maren sets out on an urgent existential search, taking her from Maryland to the Midwest, on which she’ll meet Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a charismatic drifter who will coax her toward self-acceptance and the first glimmers of love.

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Fans of “Call Me By Your Name” will remember Guadagnino’s first collaboration with Chalamet; they are hereby warned that, although suffused with moments of startling beauty, this is very much not that movie. Situated on the scuzzy outskirts of American society, “Bones and All” is a graphic, often off-putting travelogue that seems to use the ultimate anti-social behavior as a convenient stand-in for every contemporary social problem from otherization to addiction. That metaphorical ambition feels flimsy at best in a film that revels in shock value, as its two attractive lead players slurp, crunch and gorge on their latest hapless victims. While Maren and Lee share the same fey temperament and just-agonized-enough ethics, another secret sharer she meets along the way – a menacing vagabond named Sully, overplayed by Mark Rylance – has no such compunctions. “Bones and All” ups the ante by turning into a chase movie, culminating in a Grand Guignol of brutality and self-sacrifice.

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Taylor Russell and Timothee Chalamet star in Bones & All.
Taylor Russell and Timothee Chalamet star in Bones & All.

Chalamet and Russell are very good in a film that calls on the lead actor to wear baggy jeans and a red-dyed mullet (“Bones and All” is set during the 1980s); he looks like the sexiest carny you ever flirted with at the state fair. Russell, for her part, delivers a gentle, watchful performance as a young woman like any other, who just wants to love and be loved.

Like so many movies this season – “Triangle of Sadness,” “The Menu,” “The Whale” – “Bones and All” is concerned with eating, why we make it so hard to get our most basic needs met, and the things we do to ourselves and each other that keep us from being nourished. Or at least, that’s the most generous reading of this perverse picaresque. It’s also a pulpy grindhouse B-picture tricked out in art house pretensions, counting on the siren call of sex and violence to fleece the rubes. Choose your own adventure. And maybe bring a barf bag.

RATING: One and one-half stars

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