Alex Pettyfer, left, and James Freedson-Jackson in The Strange Ones (Vertical Entertainment/DIRECTV)

A spiritual godson to Paris, Texas, this little road movie is seeping with mood in its stoic shots of the American countryside, just like its predecessor. But somewhere along the way, the plot doesn’t stick to one direction. Alex Pettyfer, perhaps best known for Magic Mike, plays Nick, a twentysomething man driving cross-country with a young boy going by the name of Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson). At first, it’s not clear what Nick and Jeremiah’s relationship is. They say they are brothers, but it becomes obvious they are not. As the film unfolds, snippets of a backstory are revealed; they are on the run from something, but from what?

The boy, whose real name is Sam, is clearly attracted to Nick, his elder by about 12 to 15 years, but what the film teases us with is: is it reciprocated? Before the two hit the road, they spent a lot of time together, living next door to each other in a leafy small town. In a motel room, Sam tiptoes over to the bathroom, where Nick has left the door open and is pleasuring himself in the shower behind the see-through curtain. The scene stops there, and the film is filled with such moments that are left open-ended, where questions are raised but remain unanswered. Nick undresses in front of Sam or sits down next to him on Sam’s bed, and not on his own across the room, or shares an age-inappropriate beer with the teen, but the film always comes just short of suggestiveness.

I’m going to go with the theory that the attraction is reciprocated, but Nick, who would stand to suffer the penalty of law, speaks to Sam cryptically about resisting urges. Does that mean he’s trying keep his distance from Sam? Or does it mean he’s trying to control himself? Or, as the film suggests from time to time, is he talking about something else? It’s not hard to figure out what the two are fleeing from (you’ll find out within two or three flashbacks). What’s never established is what they are running toward.

But then the movie makes the weirdest choice halfway through by separating the two. Sam winds up at some kind of juvenile correctional farm, where he will stay for most of the remainder of the film. This is unfortunate, because nothing that happens post-road trip comes even close to the ambiguous conflict between Pettyfer and Freedson-Jackson. The mysteriousness of their relationship is mesmerizing, and the actors establish a tension that mirrors real-life brothers or…whatever it is they are to each other. However, there’s this whole “is everything a dream?” element that’s only hinted at an earlier scene and comes back in the last five to 10 minutes in a bit of a retcon move, implying that a much greater force has been at work all along. As a result, the narrative becomes deliberately puzzling.

The Strange Ones is actually an expansion on a short film with the same title that the directing team of Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff made back in 2011. The shorter version lacked the “waking dream” aspects and, in my mind, is a much stronger film because it keeps its focus on the relationship between the man and the boy. There are some memorable, nay, downright impactful moments in the feature-length version, especially from the performances of Pettyfer and Freedson-Jackson. But in the end, it’s just too hard to figure out what story it’s telling.

Directed by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein
Written by Radcliff
Released by Vertical Entertainment/DIRECTV
USA. 82 min. Not rated
With Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson