Okay, so adolescence sucks. This is news to exactly nobody. It's a time of massive physical, social, and intellectual upheaval, when your body rebels against you, your mind is opened to entirely new ways of thinking about the world, and the people around you - some of whom you've known your entire life - take on new, strange meanings. Being a teenager in a small, tightly knit community is possibly even worse. You don't get to decide which secrets are yours to keep and which are community property. If you're the slightest bit different, people come down on you hard. The people who've known you your whole life have no intention of letting you become anyone else, for good or ill.
From Within isn't a movie about the horrors of adolescence, but it isn't not about them either. It's what happens when an already scary time finds new ways to be scary.
We open with a young couple - a boy and a girl - sitting on a pier at the edge of a lake. The boy reads something from a book, and then apologizes to the girl before blowing his own brains out. Getting things off to a bang, as it were. The girl, promptly and thoroughly traumatized, runs back to town, only to end up a short time later with a pair of scissors jammed into her neck by her own hand. It's a small town, a folksy, all-American town. A good, old-fashioned American town full of God-fearing Christians (except for those weirdos we don't talk about), shocked by two suicides so close together.
Among those upset are Lindsay and her friend Claire. They both go to the local high school and attend the local church like most everyone else in town (everyone except that one family with the house outside of town). Lindsay's a nice girl, she's sweet and friendly, and the pastor's son seems to have a thing for her. Still, Lindsay has her own problems - Mom's a drunk who clings to her faith as tightly as the bottle, and Mom's boyfriend Roy is an ex-con who shares Mom's devotion to the Lord but manages an aura of greasy creepiness to go along with it. Lindsay's sad, yes, but she's also got her hands full. It's tough enough to just be a kid in a small town without bringing down other people's grief on top of it. The town searches for answers, and of course there are rumors, rumors drawing on long-standing town grudges and unpleasant past events nobody wants to talk about. But that's typical for a small town - nobody ever forgets anything.
On balance, From Within is a ghost story that makes as many smart choices as it does poor ones. The setting works - the whole town feels like it's balanced on the edge of an early fall evening, like Halloween is coming. The church is an omnipresent force, communicating a sense of constraint without falling into cultishness, and most (most) of the characters are nicely underplayed - I kept waiting for hysterics and melodrama and for the most part, they never came. Lindsay feels like an actual kid instead of some self-aware parody of adolescence. Even the inevitable "terrible secret" has some room to breathe and doesn't necessarily drive the action. There are moments of bitchy dark humor and it's nicely scary, with an ending that avoids sentimentality. On the other hand, some character progression and events feel rushed, throwing off the sort of rhythm absolutely necessary for a good ghost story. More to the point, the creators sacrificed an opportunity to tell a really good horror story about adolescence for a really easy horror story for adolescents.
Much of the action in this movie revolves around Lindsay's evolving friendship with Aiden - a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He's all broody and tormented and dark and shit. It was Aiden's little brother who killed himself at the beginning of the movie, and he gets his ass kicked at school because his family has weirdo non-Christian beliefs in a town where everyone goes to the same megachurch. So there's kind of this Romeo & Juliet (or, you know, Twilight) thing going on where the whole thing started as the inevitable next step in some feud and who cares. Take the broody pagans out of it (along with some of the worst dialogue in the script) and you could have a story about what happens when you grow up in a small town with the weight of everyone's expectations on you, and how that weight pushes children in the throes of adolescence into odd shapes, stunted by all of the growth they have to do and no room in which to do it. Some turn to drugs, some turn to casual sex, some turn to alcohol, some turn to weird clothes and music, why wouldn't some turn to messing with forces beyond their control?
The bones of the movie are there, the directorial instincts are generally good, but the obviousness is disappointing. This could have been a story about teenagers, with remote adults disconnected from everything until it's all far too late and people start dying. It could have been a story about how the upheaval of puberty makes it hard to tell when you're crossing a line, about the secrets we keep from our families, ourselves, and each other as we grow. Because at its worst, adolescence is practically a nightmare anyway - why not make it literal?
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Available on Netflix