Two hundred dollars, a birth certificate, and a cassette tape. That’s everything Frank Yearly (Andre Holland) leaves behind when he disappears forever. That, and his daughter, Maren (Taylor Russell). They’ve been on the run together for something like fifteen years, chasing anonymity from one nameless town to the next. Chasing a sense of normalcy. But when your kid eats people — and naturally, kills them in the process — a normal life will never come easily. So Frank decides. He can’t run anymore, not with Maren, anyway. He can’t keep ignoring her affinity for human flesh — and incidentally, neither can she. The older she gets, the more frequently she feeds; the more questions she has. So he leaves her behind, but not before pointing her in the direction of the one person that might have all the answers: her mother.
It may not seem like it at first glance, but Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All shares a lot of DNA with other existential coming-of-age films. As we follow Maren across the country, on a journey that feels at once dogged and a little aimless, we watch her strip the layers of her naïveté and come into her own. We realize — at the same time she does — that life isn’t so much about the destination as it is the journey, and that the belonging we seek can be found anywhere along the way. In any other film, in any other director’s hands, Bones and All very well could have slipped into the canon of cookie-cutter teen tragedy on those themes alone. But Bones and All is still about cannibalism at the end of the day, and Guadagnino — with the help of screenwriter David Kajganich, cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, and a cast at the absolute top of their game — doesn’t let us forget it for a moment.
Maren’s quest to find her estranged mom is less a straight line than it is a winding path. Again, it’s about the journey, and Maren’s effectively begins when she encounters other “eaters” for the very first time. “I thought I was the only one,” she says upon meeting Sully (an absolutely chilling Mark Rylance). Their rapport is strained and short-lived, but it sends her running headlong into Lee (Timothée Chalamet), the blood-soaked beanpole many audiences will be tuning into this film to see. Lee’s appeal is obvious from the outset: he’s got all the restlessness and plain-spoken chill that we’ve come to expect in a Timmy performance. Even as he hunts the flesh that haunts him, feasts on bodies that deserve it (and don’t), that boyish charisma shines through. The loneliness too. Yes, Lee is lonely. Just as Maren is. Neither outright expresses it, but it’s palpable in their first meeting. They recognize it in each other, smell it on each other’s skin, right under the sweat and grime. Falling in with Lee isn’t wise, but it’s convenient. Falling in love is dangerous, but it’s a matter of survival.
The romance at the heart of Bones and All, while disarming and real on so many levels, is but the gateway to unpacking all manner of metaphors. There are some that will look at Lee and Maren and see an allusion to generational trauma. Others will recognize the curse of addiction or even shades of the queer experience in their tumultuous odyssey through the Reagan-era midwest. But that’s the beauty of this very cerebral, very preternatural corner of horror. All of the above can apply in one film, and Guadagnino has been doing this long enough to recognize that.
Guadagnino has a well-documented love for the chilling themes at play in Bones and All, though he’s equally well-known for his grasp on coming of age. He’s spent years mastering each in their own projects; never all at once. But in his latest effort, the director has married the grotesque, baroque horror of Suspiria with the sun-streaked longing of Call Me By Your Name and We Are Who We Are. He’s united the two halves of artistic expression that would otherwise be locked on the two opposing sides of his filmography, and it’s created an incredibly fresh world for his actors — be they returning players or first-time collaborators — to explore.
There could have been no doubt that Chalamet’s second collaboration with Guadagnino would live up to its lofty expectations. Chalamet is not an actor that often “transforms”; he’s more prone to slip characters onto his own body like a translucent skin, endowing them with his own tics and foibles — and somehow, they manage to feel like different people each time. It’s no different in Bones and All, except now Guadagnino is able to pull even more out of a Chalamet that’s five years older than the boy in Call Me By Your Name … and if not wiser, then painfully more aware of the workings of the world. It’d be easy to name him the sole star of this film — and given the star power Chalamet generates on his own, many will certainly try — but that’s an accolade that absolutely must be shared with Taylor Russell. Alone, each is fantastic, delivering minor masterclasses in the primal, the tender, the hollow. Russell especially is an It Girl in the making. Her performance may feel subdued compared to Rylance’s innate scenery chewing, or Michael Stuhlbarg’s (Call Me By Your Name) harrowing cameo, but it’s the grounding force that keeps this ever-shifting story focused, and brings the best out of the rest of the company.
Together though, Bones and All fully and finally sings. It’s magic — awkward, earnest magic — when Russell and Chalamet share the screen. It’s almost enough to make you forget that these crazy kids do, in fact, eat people: For all its focus on the animalistic, Bones and All still favors the delicate, the dreamlike. It works to find the beauty in the dark, skulking corners of our world, and show that even the savage can bask in the light now and then. Death and violence are but a manifestation of the otherness that these “eaters” experience. They take their curse and learn to live with it, learn to work around it, and find connection and love in spite of it. Whether it could possibly end well for everyone involved is one of the great mysteries in Bones and All — and like a winding, cross-country pilgrimage, it’s going to take its sweet time laying it out for us.