Arts and Entertainment

Into The Thick of It

“Backyard Wilderness” follows a young girl blossoming a liking for the nature that’s around her, and in turn, the film instilled a similar appreciation in me.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Sammi Chen

Spring has come, and the birds are flying—or rather, falling. Middle school student Katie dwells in her upstate New York abode, working on her science project. The sunlight filters through the trees’ budding branches, clumps of snow still clinging to the edges. In the corner of her eye, the lake, ice melted long before, reflects the light of the sun. Beside her are leaf samples that salamanders, the topic of her project, have trampled over in her backyard.

A shadow flickers by and interrupts Katie reading over her draft on her tablet. She looks up to see birds—baby birds—clumsily gliding from their nest in a tree hollow and falling onto the leaves, which are golden leftovers from last fall. Katie pauses in her work. She glances between her unfinished science project and the birds, and something clicks in her mind. Immediately, she calls over her brother.

“You’ve got to see this!” she cries.

Throughout this 45-minute 3D IMAX film and exhibition shown at the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Theater on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), we are introduced to Katie (Annie Fabian) and her family; they live cozily in their house during winter, ignoring the beauty of nature's action outside. Despite residing in such a sparsely populated town with the woods literally in her backyard, Katie and her family spend the day—and most of the year—inside.

Directed and written by Susan Todd and Andrew Young, “Backyard Wilderness” is a beautifully shot film following a young girl as she learns how to develop an appreciation for her long-time neighbor, the wilderness. An older Katie narrates the journey of her younger self: “Many people remember when their life changed in a big way, when they first realized what matters to them. For me, it happened when I was 11—in my own backyard.”

From being overjoyed at the five likes on her Instagram post to snapping pictures of any animal or animal traces she encounters, we witness this eighth grader realize the importance of nature in her life as she utilizes social media as a platform to promote awareness and appreciation for nature with the hashtag #backyardwilderness. We strengthen our appreciation as well through this film’s splendid simple message, proficient camerawork, and heartwarming dialogue from her and her family. We journey alongside Katie through spring, summer, autumn, and winter and witness her and nature’s growth.

The movie has a nice balance of visual and audio. Most of the dialogue is in voiceover or in the background. Because the focus of the film is nature, Katie and her family are often shot as part of the background, while the animals and plants are in the foreground. Whether it’s a blooming hyacinth—a plant widely considered to be the first sign of spring—or a mouse crawling its way under the snow searching for food and warmth, the camera repositions itself to concentrate on nature, emphasizing how out-of-place the house seemed to be amidst the wild backdrop. But the camerawork truly excels in the transition scenes when time speeds up and the lake is freezing over. This also happens when time slows and a raindrop splashes onto a leaf that a ladybug was resting on. Each depicts a new variety of plants and creatures, from flowers and salamanders to deer and wolves to frogs and racoons.

The 3D glasses handed out at the entrance to the AMNH theater contribute a dimensional aspect that further highlights the effect such scenes evoke, which is of awe and wonder. But more often than not, the viewers hear before they see. There is the crunch of the snow, the toppling of the garbage bin from the raccoons’ nocturnal hunt, and the smashing of keys of the game Katie’s older brother is zoned in on.

The acting, however, is subpar. There are brief moments when Fabian felt dull, as if she was more focused on enunciating the script than portraying Katie’s character. But, the sights and sounds of “Backyard Wilderness” compensate for it. There is also a slow pace and lack of major plot points. So, those who are more interested in action and drama-based films may not fully enjoy this exhibition film, as the story is driven forward by small changes and actions.

When I initially visited the museum during Thanksgiving Break, “Backyard Wilderness” was not my first choice on the list of preferred special exhibitions. The cover looked generic, too colorful, and quite frankly, unappealing. However, the film changed my mind. I wasn’t wrong in my assumption that it was a movie about the beauty and appreciation of nature. Still, it wasn’t just that. The way such a simplistic message was presented and executed won me over. The music, crisp, clear sequences, and variety of plants and animals stopped me from sneaking glances at my phone in my lap. And though I may not be the most environmentally active person, this film made me realize I didn’t have to get down in the dirt or up in the trees to do so. I have my phone and backyard, and that’s all I need.