The recent film The Menu, a restaurant satire with a horror twist, had such a menacing edge to its marketing that I felt compelled to open my review with a disclaimer: This movie is not about cannibalism. Now less than a week later comes the release of Bones and All, a dreamy-looking road film about two beautiful youngsters who travel around America whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. Given that plotline, the following revelation may come as a surprise: This movie is very much about cannibalism. Bones and All is a lyrical romance whose central lovers like to devour other people, preferably raw.
Luca Guadagnino’s new movie, which is based on a novel by Camille DeAngelis and written by his frequent collaborator David Kajganich, is not shy about its premise. In an early scene, the teenager Maren Yearly (played by Taylor Russell) attends a sleepover with her high-school friends. While rolling around on the floor with one of them, Maren puts her friend’s finger in her mouth and bites down hard, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. That faux pas is immediately followed by screaming, gushing blood, and Maren hiding. Through it all, Guadagnino carefully ensures that the audience is invested in this hungry heroine, a wayward soul who simply can’t escape the desire to munch on human flesh.
DeAngelis’s novel, in which Maren road-trips around 1980s America trying to stay ahead of the law and her own homicidal impulses, is appealingly atonal. Across his projects, Guadagnino has been fascinated by subcultures and hidden worlds, such as the witchy ballet school in his Suspiria remake and the rock-star recluses of A Bigger Splash. He’s also, of late, taken to essaying the boiling cauldron of emotions that is adolescence, particularly in the Oscar-winning Call Me by Your Name and his recent TV series We Are Who We Are. Bones and All is his least conventional coming-of-age drama yet.
I give Guadagnino credit for continuing to seek out bold material and for leaning into off-putting themes. Although grim genre fiction has exploded (especially in the young-adult space) and proffered vampires and werewolves as compelling romantic leads, cannibalism still seems like a gruesome taboo for a supposedly relatable protagonist to engage in. But even with the gore and the gorgeous visuals that typically accompany a Guadagnino project, Bones and All too often feels frustratingly tame.
The plot structure is loose yet still-routine outlaw fare. When Maren’s despairing father, Frank (André Holland), tells her that she’s been prone to blacking out and eating people since childhood, Maren goes on the run and learns that a whole caste of people like her, dubbed “eaters,” lives on the margins of society. One, an eccentric hillbilly named Sully (Mark Rylance), tries to take her under his wing, but she rebuffs him, possibly because Rylance plays the character as a cross between a dotty grandpa and an inept serial killer. Another is a grungy young man named Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a surly store clerk with streaky red dye in his hair and gigantic rips in his pants. Quite predictably, she falls in love with him.
Chalamet, who did transformative work in Call Me by Your Name, is perfectly diverting here, mumbling and casting soulful glances with practiced ease. But Lee’s romance with Maren has the aesthetics of a jeans commercial from the ’90s, all breathy sighs and angular cheekbones, and not much depth beyond that. They’re united by their specific culinary dysfunction, and their hitchhikes through the Midwest make alienation look sublime. Other than that, the character sketches rely on a general sense that these two are just different.
The cannibalism helps, of course—it might even trick some viewers into thinking the narrative arc has some hidden complexity. And Russell, a remarkably sensitive performer, is well cast for the lead role; she’s even better than Chalamet at imbuing fundamentally ridiculous material with a little bit of realism, so that her hunting sprees don’t feel like they’re coming entirely out of nowhere. But so much of the romanticism gestures toward not gothic cinema but the heavy-handed swoons of a mass-market paperback. Guadagnino seems afraid to poke at the boundaries between sex and literal flesh-eating, meaning Maren and Lee’s relationship ends up feeling downright traditional. There are moments when Bones and All threatens to evoke something darker and more visceral. But again and again, Guadagnino reins in that bite.