There are many movies that are worth seeing, but there are a lot of stinkers as well. My goal here is to weed out the good from the bad.
Alise (Vera Farmiga) and Connor (Marton Csokas) have recently suffered a tragic loss. It has put a strain on their marriage, as they both have very different ways of handling their grief. They are both trying to hold onto their marriage, but their pain will not be easy to overcome. Unfortunately, they soon realize that their son, Wes (Jacob Tremblay), has also been greatly affected by the tragedy.
In an old book, Wes stumbled upon an even older picture that has had a profound impact on him. The picture he found was that of a Mongolian nomad. It inspired him to learn more about the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle, and he has become obsessed with the idea that he is himself a Mongolian nomad. He has created his own clothes, he has created his own goats, and he has made every effort to live as a Mongolian. While Connor wants his son to snap out of this phase, Alise has decided to take Wes on a trip to Mongolia.
The Pros & Cons
|The Pros||The Cons|
Jacob Tremblay (+6pts)
Vera Farmiga (+4pts)
The Plot & Mongolia (+6pts)
The Friend & The Guide (-4pts)
Pro: Jacob Tremblay (+6pts)
Jacob Tremblay is young, but he has already delivered some great performances in his short career. His most notable performances were in Room and Wonder, but the young actor already has a number of acting credits, and he has delivered strong performances in everything that I have seen him in. Burn Your Maps was another great example of this kid’s talent. Wes was a simple character on the surface, but he was really much more complex once you dig a little deeper.
Wes was obsessed with being a Mongolian nomad. He was excited about that idea, he was excited about the fantasy he created for himself, and he was excited when he got the opportunity to visit the country that has become the subject of his obsession. His story was more tragic when you understand what it was that he found so appealing about the nomadic lifestyle, and why he was obsessed with this fantasy. The character seemed happy on the surface, but he was in pain and he was struggling to process that pain. The character had a complex, compelling story, and Jacob Tremblay did a great job of bringing that story to the screen in an interesting and convincing way.
Con: Ismail (-3pts)
My issues with this character were not major, but I just did not think he fit into this story naturally. The character had some entertaining moments, but I did not understand why he was there. Ismail, played by Suraj Sharma, was an aspiring filmmaker who was fascinated by Wes’ story. He befriended Wes and he wants to film the boy’s journey—which let us be honest, kind of creepy.
Nonetheless, Ismail's interest was understandable. Wes had an interesting story and it would make sense for an aspiring filmmaker to want to document that. The problem was that Wes was a child and Ismail was very much not a child. I just did not buy their friendship and I did not buy Alise’s acceptance of it. The character also just did not seem at all relevant to the overall story. He could have been removed altogether, and the plot would have only needed one or two minor adjustments. Again, my issues with this character did not greatly impact my enjoyment of the movie. Ismail was just a somewhat unnecessary and minor character that seemed forced into this story, but he did have some entertaining and satisfying moments.
Pro: Vera Farmiga (+4pts)
Wes had a compelling story, in this movie, and so did his parents. Of the two, Alise definitely got a lot more focus, and I was definitely interested in her story. As I mentioned before, this family suffered a great tragedy. Alise was probably hurting the most after that tragedy, and she was struggling to get through it.
I do not want to say much more about her story, but Vera Farmiga did a fantastic job with this role. I bought that this character was broken, and I bought that she still very much loved her son Wes. The character was in tremendous pain, but she needed to be strong to help her son through his, and I enjoyed watching Vera Farmiga bring that complexity to the screen. She was not the focal point of the movie, that was definitely Wes, but Alise was a compelling character and Vera Farmiga knocked the role out of the park.
Con: Connor (-2pts)
While I thought Connor had a compelling story, the way this story was executed felt a little unfair to the character. He was dealing with the same pain as his wife, but he was dealing with it in a very different way. The filmmakers had an opportunity to show how significant grief can impact a marriage and a family, and how that grief can manifest itself in different ways for different people. In a way, they definitely did that, but I thought this story sort of vilified Connor at the beginning of the movie.
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Toward the end of the movie, this was not the case, and I found the character’s story compelling regardless. If anything, the character was the more logical parent, he just had a moment of weakness in which he let his guard down—allowing his pain to get the better of him. As a result, the movie then made him out to be a bad guy, which seemed pretty unfair to the guy. It did not last too long, but this vilification glossed over his pain, and while pain is not an acceptable reason to treat people poorly, I thought the filmmakers could have done a better job of emphasizing that his actions were the result of his guard slipping and letting his pain out.
Pro: The Plot & Mongolia (+6pts)
I always enjoy plots that focus on interesting characters, and Burn Your Maps had just that. While I thought Connor was unfairly vilified for a little bit, I still found the character to be compelling. Alise and Wes obviously had a more unique story and I enjoyed watching their journey in addition to watching them come face-to-face with their grief along the way. As interesting as these characters were, it was setting this story in Mongolia that made the movie feel so unique.
I have been fortunate enough to go to Mongolia twice, so when I found out about this movie, I was interested to see how the country would be depicted. It would have been nice to see the filmmakers show a bit of modern Mongolian culture in addition to the nomadic culture, but I understand that Wes was obsessed with Mongolian nomads, so the decision to focus on the nomadic culture made sense. While I do not claim to be an expert on Mongolian culture from my two visits to the country, I enjoyed seeing this movie, as it felt consistent with the Mongolian countryside that I experienced during my time there. This was a decent character story that was set in some beautiful locations. Mongolia is a country with a lot of amazing views and a unique, fascinating culture, and it does not get much attention in movies or television series, so I enjoyed seeing this movie spend so much time there.
Con: The Friend & The Guide (-4pts)
When Alise and Wes arrived in Mongolia, they met two new characters. Unfortunately, I did not think either of these characters worked, but they did not work in different ways. Alise met a new friend, played by Virginia Madsen. This character was fine to an extent, but she just felt very random. She joined the story in a very random way, she did not offer anything to the story, she seemed to have nothing better to do than to follow Alise around, and she then left the story even more randomly than the way she entered it. As random as the character was, I did not have as much of an issue with her as I did with the guide.
Once they arrived in Mongolia, the guide was responsible for driving Alise and Wes across the countryside of Mongolia, and taking them where they needed to go. The guide, named Batbayar (Ramon Rodriguez), should have served as a background character. I will not say what the filmmakers did with the character to avoid spoilers, but they forced him into a far more significant role than he should have had. This storyline felt like an unnecessary distraction from the more compelling story—Wes and his journey. It also felt like the filmmakers were trying to force more drama into the movie. Did it work? I suppose, but the drama that it added felt lazy, uninteresting, and it had no real payoff.
Grade: B- (82pts)
Like I said before, I have been fortunate enough to go to Mongolia twice. It is a beautiful country, and while much of the population lives in a very modern city, the nomadic Mongolian culture still exists throughout the countryside. This movie takes a look at nomadic Mongolian culture through the perspective of a young boy in America who wanted to live the free life of a Mongolian nomad. The movie was about Wes and his desires, but it was also about Wes’ parents and how they respond to their son’s new obsession—all while dealing with their own grief.
Unfortunately, most of the side characters were either random, or irrelevant. However, while I think the side characters needed some work, they were just side characters, so it did not hurt the movie much. While it would have been nice to see some of the modern lifestyle in Mongolia, I understand that this was not what the story was about, and the filmmakers' depiction of the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle seemed consistent with what I experienced there. This was an interesting story about a family in pain, and their journey to get through that pain. That—mixed with compelling characters, strong performances, and a great setting—made this a movie that was emotionally gripping and satisfying, and it was easy to get invested in these characters and their tragic stories.
Michael115 on July 16, 2019:
Movie Beasts (author) from MA on July 16, 2019:
Thanks, Michael. I appreciate the kind words!
Michael115 on July 16, 2019:
Very good review! I do hate pointless side characters that are there just because. Living the free life of a nomad must be peaceful and hard work and the thought of a kid wanting to be a part of that lifestyle is pretty interesting. Keep up the good work!