In ‘Bones and All,’ Cannibal Lovers Hit the Road for a Taste of Normal Life

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Black young woman and white young man with their heads together intensely
Taylor Russell (left) as Maren and Timothée Chalamet (right) as Lee in Luca Guadagnino's 'Bones and All.' (Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Mere minutes after Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) meet cute in a small-town supermarket in Nowhere, America, they crash at the trailer home of the unfortunate loudmouth whom Lee, uh, just dined with. A Kiss poster is thumbtacked to the wall and a Kiss album is on the turntable, presumably only because there wasn’t a popular ’70s or ’80s rock band named Chew or Devour.

The young duo at the marrow of Luca Guadagnino’s uneven adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 young adult novel Bones and All (opening Nov. 23) share an illness, we are informed. They aren’t vampires, werewolves, zombies or aliens, but they possess a secret, deadly and taboo need that sets them apart and outside of “normal” society.

So when Maren says, more than once, “I didn’t know there was anyone else like me,” she’s speaking for — and to — every teenager. As it happens, her condition is genuinely, exceedingly rare — OK, I’ll spill the (fava) beans, she eats human flesh (clinical diagnosis: cannibalism) — but plainly it’s a metaphor for the common traits, identifiers, behaviors or characteristics that everyone works through on the way to adulthood.

Young Black woman with short bangs on bus with headphones on
Taylor Russell as Maren in 'Bones and All.' (Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

In order for Bones and All to work, it has to take the heightened emotional and hormonal urgency of teenagers seriously. (That’s no small challenge given that the typical growing-up process is rife with embarrassment and absurdity.) The film succeeds exceedingly well in this respect, to my eye, but the real measure will be audience sniggering, or the lack of it. I think many will identify with Maren coming to terms with her body and her appetites, her profound sense of dislocation and abandonment, and the unsettling experience of navigating the predatory adult world while relying solely on one’s intuition — and incisors.

The ruthlessness of grown-ups is embodied by Sully (the always terrific Mark Rylance), a demonically soft-spoken Eater (it’s always nice when a movie teaches us new words) who literally sniffs out Maren one evening shortly after she’s left her latest home and taken to the road. Maren precipitated this uneasy chain of events by taking a bite out of an acquaintance at a sleepover — not the best way to make friends at your new school — prompting her caring father to hustle Maren into the car and (not for the first time) make a cover-of-darkness getaway.

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A day or two later, Maren wakes up to find Dad has split, leaving a note, some cash and a cassette tape with a bit of family history. This crucial development provides our haunted heroine with a motivation to run toward something — namely, the mother she never knew — that supersedes simply running from the law. When she hooks up with the slightly older Lee, a rambling loner with his own recent bloody trauma, Maren’s familial treasure hunt is on the menu, giving their days direction (literally) and purpose.

Tall thin white man in hat on dark residential street
Mark Rylance as Sully in 'Bones and All,' directed by Luca Guadagnino. (Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Bones and All loses a bit of juice once we realize that the fantastical and unique perversity of a cannibal story is cloaking the skeleton of a familiar narrative — a character’s search for her roots. Meanwhile, all the attractions and frustrations endemic to road movies are present here: the thrill of new scenery and unexpected encounters mixed with screeching U-turns and head-scratching randomness.

You will have ample time and opportunity, especially in Bones and All’s second half, to contemplate other misunderstood-lovers-on-the-run movies, from Bonnie and Clyde and Thieves Like Us to Natural Born Killers. Guadagnino (whose documentary, Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams, opened Nov. 18) is certainly aware of the pitfalls of the various genres in which he’s trafficking, but he can’t fully avoid them. Most intriguingly, he subverts Maren’s nerve-shredding reunion with Mom — the film’s seemingly inevitable climax — by following the character far beyond its aftermath.

Those who don’t feel they fit into our society often form tribes with like-minded people, but some crave the feeling of fitting in, blending, passing. Maren wants to taste normal life, and Lee readily and desperately accedes. He’s more experienced and should know better, but maybe he never heard Born to Run on a stolen car radio.

Two small figures against flat grassy landscape, clouds above
Taylor Russell (left) as Maren and Timothée Chalamet (right) as Lee in 'Bones and All.' (Yannis Drakoulidis / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Admittedly, there are more improbable things that occur in Bones and All. Many of them are implicitly addressed by setting the story in the late ’80s before the existence of smartphones and the Internet. It was harder then to track or trace murderers across state lines and far less likely for regular folks to have seen a picture of a suspect or even heard of a pattern of unusual killings. (I suppose we can look forward to a four-part Netflix true-crime series about serial killers in the pre-Internet age.)

Sociologists are not the target audience of Bones and All, however, so I would be remiss if I did not report that fans will take plenty of pleasure in Timothée Chalamet’s reunion with his Call Me by Your Name director. Jittery yet in control, confident yet vulnerable, Chalamet’s Lee has echoes of River Phoenix and James Dean. Bones and All is Maren’s movie, but Lee stays with us as the damaged embodiment of America’s teenage wasteland. Nature or nurture, it’s left to us to debate.

‘Bones and All’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 23.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained a misspelling of the lead actor's last name. It is Chalamet, not Chalemet. KQED Arts & Culture regrets the error.