Ghosts from The Twilight Zone, Paul Jennings stories and Flight of the Navigator (1986) hover throughout ABC3’s upcoming young adult adventure-mystery-drama Nowhere Boys, even if the target demographic may not be old enough to notice them. The first four eps were strung together for the show’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it’s good stuff: pacey and addictive yoof-tainment with snazzy packaging and a compelling “what if” existential premise.
Television is becoming “more cinematic” these days, so the common line goes. Small screen productions certainly feel larger in scope and ambition (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Wire, Arrested Development) and the same is true here. It’s hard to know whether artists are subconsciously accommodating for larger lounge room screens and merging distribution models or if the idiot box is experiencing a kind of filmic renaissance.
Produced by The Home Song Stories (2007) and The Slap (2011) director Tony Ayres, Nowhere Boys opens with the same structure as Breaking Bad, a simple, borderline cliché but very effective flashback device. An adrenaline rush of what-the-hell-is-happening plonks viewers in a climactic situation interrupted by a placard (“24 hours earlier”) pre-empting an account of circumstances leading up to this event.
We see four teenage boys in a national park, surrounded by bush and shrubbery, running away from a tornado that seems, impossibly, to be chasing them. Whiz back in time and we learn the boys are participating in a school orienteering program. The teacher has (in the spirit of dramatic convenience) matched stereotypes: the jock, the dork, the goth and the average guy (played by Matthew Testro, Joel Lok, Dougie Baldwin and Rahart Sadiqzai) are forced to buddy-up.
When they get lost in the park and hitch a ride back to town, the boys discover their “nowhere” status. Nobody – including, and especially, their family – recognise who they are, and no record of them exists. Placing this mystery inside the context of a story about adolescence gels with familiar feelings associated with puberty: loneliness, confusion, a sense of not fitting in, etcetera.
The central premise, which puts together students separated by class and stereotypes, is a lot like The Breakfast Club (1985). When one of the kids returns home, freaks out his (no longer) sister and is chased out of his (no longer) home by his hell-eyed knife-wielding (no longer) grandmother, it is a near Xerox of the moment Marty McFly came home to an alternate world in Back to the Future Part II (1989). Slick production values give us a whoosh of (superb) modern sound mixing and monster POV style shots that could have been taken from The Blair Witch Project (1999), Predator (1987) or any number of scary movies. The extent to which it borrows from other sources is suggested in the show’s original title, which was changed for copyright reasons: The Lost Boys.
These aren’t necessarily complaints. While Nowhere Boys isn’t as edgy or innovative as its premise could have afforded (at least not yet) [pullquote position=”right”]it’s great to see talented local filmmakers dip their snouts into trough buckets of popular culture and emerge covered in food for thought[/pullquote], finding enough variation from the status quo to create a marketable point of difference.
It remains to be seen how the program’s head-scratching premise will be fleshed out. As plenty of Twilight Zone episodes showed us, it is easier to establish an interesting mystery than it is to satisfyingly resolve one. Whichever way the cookie crumbles (it took 121 episodes for it to crumble in Lost) Nowhere Boys is off to a roaring start. It arrives bearing hallmarks of a future Australian classic — one part Gillian Rubinstein, one part Rod Serling — and solicits the best kind of response a local production can hope for: we leave wondering why the industry doesn’t make more shows like it.
The first four episodes of Nowhere Boys premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The show will air in 2014.