There's always been something vaguely bloodthirsty about the culture's collective lust for its teen heart-throbs – every contour of their flesh grist for the mill of public consumption, every pretty face and lithe body designed to be eaten alive. Bones and All, an 80s-set teenage road movie that reunites Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino and Timothée Chalamet, knows as much: there's an audience out there that would love to take a bite out of its star – and it's out to make them swoon with desire, and disgust.
Surveying a desolate America more Badlands than Stranger Things, the Italian filmmaker makes it quickly apparent that he's not here for another round of neon-tinted nostalgia.
Within the film's opening moments, at a slumber party in suburban Virginia, 18-year-old high school senior Maren (Taylor Russell, Waves) has chowed down on a pal's freshly painted finger like she's devouring a corn dog – or a certain erotic peach – awakening a latent bloodlust that she can no longer ignore.
The sound design alone – as skin flenses from bone – will make plenty in the audience squirm.
Pretty soon Maren's single father (André Holland, Moonlight) has hustled her out of town, his parting gift a cassette tape that explains her gruesome family legacy – just like her estranged mother (Chloë Sevigny, making an unforgettably eerie appearance), she's inherited an incurable taste for human flesh.
Left to fend for herself, Maren sets out across the Midwest, reeling from her awakening and landing on the radar of a creepy drifter by the name of Sully (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies), a fellow "eater" who picks up her scent with disquieting ease. Chewing body parts and scenery with equal gusto, Rylance – his face caked in blood like a sad clown portrait – is unsettling, and hilariously disgusting, his presence for once enhancing the off-colour menace rather than derailing the film.
"Whatever you and I got," he barks, "it's gotta be fed."
Fleeing this freak, Maren sniffs out another of her kind in the rakish Lee, a hot young miscreant played by Chalamet in a copper-tinted mullet and distressed baggy jeans – all cleverly and anachronistically styled, no doubt, for maximum gen Z impact.
It's a meat-cute written in the scars, and soon these two abandoned kids are cruising the backwaters of the American Midwest in a stolen blue pick-up, looking for victims and – just maybe – a sense of belonging.
With their thrift store threads and scuzzed-up, blood-smeared faces, Russell and Chalamet make for an irresistible screen duo, and Guadagnino knows that he just has to hang loose, stay out of their way, and let the images work their magic.
As in Dune, Chalamet is all too happy to undercut his pin-up appeal and smoulder with angsty petulance, while Russell – her proto-grunge florals and combat boots matched with a soulful gaze – carries much of the film's moral turmoil, its sense of generational abandonment and youthful anxiety.
"I don't know whether to cry, or scream, or what," she says to Lee at one point, like an exasperated teenager in a 50s melodrama about youth gone wrong. James Dean would be proud.
For a film whose title refers to the ultimate flesh-eating delicacy – devouring another human in their entirety – Bones and All is a curiously muted affair, closer in tone to an independent drama than the nervy energy you might expect of a movie about teenage cannibal runaways.
Couched in almost comical bursts of acoustic guitar – courtesy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, though you barely realise it's them at first – and tasteful wide-screen lensing, the film's tranquil execution and grisly subject makes for a haunting tonal dissonance; one where stomach-churning horror and languid, pastoral sequences conspire to full-blown romantic existentialism.
In the process, Guadagnino crafts a vivid portrait of an alternative culture that exists as a shadow world of Reagan America. His reliable attention to aesthetic detail – a speciality in everything from I Am Love to his teen TV drama We Are Who We Are – affords the film a specific sense of time and place, where the gloomy sound of Joy Division echoes over a fairground roller-coaster, or New Order's icy synth-pop complicates otherwise picturesque landscapes.
This distinctive sense of otherness extends to the film's hints of gender fluidity, which feel like Guadagnino remixing the American road movie from a distinctly queer perspective. Chalamet's succession of women's blouses – and an erotically charged encounter with a young man he picks up for literal dinner – suggest an 80s far from the teen genre of the era.
Unlike the director's leaden, 'elevated' remake of Suspiria, which mangled the original's spooky poetry in favour of bozo intellectualism, Bones and All wisely plays its metaphorical cards close to its slender chest – pick an analogy for the 'other', and it's yours for the taking.
Whether to take it all seriously is beside the point. By the time Bones and All leans all the way into its Chalamet à la carte climax – the star a snack in every sense of the word – the film is operating on such a visceral level that it's hard not to be consumed whole.
In its Grand Guignol gesture, in its queasy mix of horror and young lovers united against the world, the film is by turns melodramatic, earnest, and completely ludicrous – in other words, just like teenage romance.
Bones and All is in cinemas now.