TIFF Review: 'Burn Your Maps'

Burn Your Maps
(USA, 102 min.)
Written and directed by Jordan Roberts
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Jacob Tremblay, Martin Csokas, Surja Sharma, Virginia Madsen, Ramón Rodríguez
Courtesy of TIFF

Canada’s Jacob Tremblay proves that Room was no fluke. The adorable nine-year-old actor has high expectations to uphold after his award-winning performance in last year’s festival favourite, but he more than capably meets the challenge. Tremblay once again steals the film from his co-stars with a performance that is wise beyond its years with Burn Your Maps. The young star plays a growing boy named Wes who takes a game of make believe too far when he imagines himself as a Mongolian goat herder and decides that life in America is a fantasy he must escape. A solid lead performance from Vera Farmiga complements the young actor every step of the journey as Wes’s mother Alise joins him on an unexpected adventure of self-discovery. Burn Your Maps moves audiences through tears and laughter as it surprises with the depth of this family’s journey.

Burn Your Maps marks the directorial debut of Jordan Roberts, one of the screenwriters behind Disney’s animated Oscar winner Big Hero 6, and while the film is accessible for general audiences and a joy to behold in its understated simplicity, it’s not a family film per se. As a drama about family, however, it’s bound to move even the most cynical of viewers.

A few fleeting shots of exoticism, like Wes making some slanty eyes in the mirror, are a little awkward, but Roberts more than compensates with images of an America that is rich in diversity as previously invisible communities awaken to Wes’s eyes, even in if only in his imagination. As Wes explores his perceived Mongolian origins, he displays some peculiar, but immediately endearing, behaviour. He dresses the part of a traditional Mongolian shepherd with a cut-up housecoat and fancy homemade hat. Some nifty cardboard and cotton ball sheep dangle by his side as he develops his new identity. He even adopts an unpronounceable name much to the chagrin of his father, Connor (Martin Csokas), who doesn’t tolerate Wes’s fantasies nearly as well as Alise does.

The mother and her son are kindred spirits because they’re both working out their shared grief. The loss of a child underlies Burn Your Maps as the family’s youngest offspring, a baby girl, haunts the film with her absence. Alise isn’t coping well, and understandably so, ten months after her daughter’s death. She resists having sex with Connor—she even encourages him to get a girlfriend—but nothing compensates for the distance between them that divides their family. Even their therapist, a barefooted lesbian, fails to mediate.

A different mediator intervenes, however, in the rift between Connor’s perception of how best to handle Wes’s Mongolian phase and Alise’s outlook on the matter. Enter Ismail (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma), Alise’s English as a second language student who is in the midst of making a documentary to help him understand the USA and the bizarre attitudes of the people who live there. Wes’s unusual story captivates his interest. It soon becomes an online sensation and crowdfunding phenomenon. Then, lo and behold, Wes finds himself running with the goats in the hills of Mongolia.

When Burn Your Maps whisks the audience to Mongolia, the film becomes a buoyant and inspiring coming of age tale for Wes and Alise alike. Enter a sexy Puerto Rican cab driver (Ramón Rodríguez) and a retired nun in search of meaning (Virginia Madsen) and Burn Your Maps features a caravan of misfit toys ripe for adventure.
The supporting cast is also quite strong and although Madsen is somewhat underused here as Victoria the nun she is a quietly radiant presence. She strengthens the film’s fundamental interest in religion as the cultural intersections between Wes’s Jewish father, a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic mother, and a Hindu director collide with the Buddhist philosophies of the Mongolian farmers. The film dexterously tackles the complexity of death, grief, and the afterlife as the journey brings Wes’s family closure in a shared ritual that takes the film to its remarkable catharsis.
Tremblay and Farmiga are as strong a parent-child team as the young actor was with Brie Larson in  Room. Burn Your Maps benefits from their collective strength to bring the weight of the family’s voyage full circle. The most surprising and convincing performance, however, comes from Kananaskis Country, a lush and expansive terrain on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains en route to Banff National Park, which doubles as Mongolia. As lensed beautifully by DP John Bailey and cut convincingly by Atom Egoyan’s frequent editor Susan Shipton, this chunk of Alberta nearly outshines Tremblay’s spirited performance. However, as this year's Jacob Tremblay show, Burn Your Maps does not disappoint.

Burn Your Maps screens:
-Thursday, Sept. 15 at 6:00 PM at Ryerson
-Friday, Sept. 16 at 9:30 AM the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sunday, Sept. 18 at 12:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank