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Keeping private in a world steadily becoming more transparent, where for most us when even stepping out of our homes puts on someone’s camera, has become a go-to standard for many filmmakers, using the omniscient presence of surveillance to tell stories, some of them thought-provoking, some intriguing, some challenging. With The Good Neighbor, there are a number of provocative moments that frame what could have been a sharp commentary but falls just short of making a bold statement.
In an unnamed town, in a corner of modern middle American, two ambitious teenagers, Ethan (Logan Miller) and Sean (Kier Gilchrist), set about to conduct a replication of an experiment that claims to have changed the life-perception of many participants involved. For their project, they target an old man across the street, one they hold an almost pre-natural grudge against for a number of unsubstantiated claims, including poisoning his ex-wife. Believing Mr. Grainey (James Caan) to be evil, they break into his house while he is away and set up cameras and listening devices throughout, but also other manipulative arrangements that will turn lights on and off, open and close doors, and more.
As the six-week project passes along, they suspect Mr. Grainey has a diabolical secret in his basement, a door they noticed during their setup as being padlocked. What they discover ends up testing not only their own resolve in the experiment, but also their friendship, as the potential for violence escalates as the man they have targeted has his own surprises for the boys.
Directed by Kasra Farahani, The Good Neighbor is a perplexing film, one that has a solid premise that works hard to fit into the contemporary world of young people. The movie operates like a found footage film with the story told mostly in flashback as the story unfolds in courtroom testimony. We are given hints to a tragedy that involve the boys and listen to brief exposition from witnesses, but mostly, we watch the secretly filmed clips and the boys reaction to it while sitting in Ethan’s bedroom where they have set up “mission control.” Farahani does well in establishing a sense of dread but dips a little too much into obvious teen stereotypes and a few basic horror tropes that undercut some of the authenticity, but doesn’t strip away too much of the effect.
That effect is best driven by the scenes within Mr. Grainey’s house, with Caan a quiet, contemplative presence that greatly elevates the film’s premise. He plays a mysterious, almost belligerent old man that doesn’t feel traditional in that sense, but well-developed. We are genuinely interested in why he seems detached from the escalating “ghostly” activity in his house. The basement is the McGuffin, a room where Mr. Grainey spends a great deal of his time, and the only place, because of the padlock, the boys don’t have cameras.
But there are other secrets lingering in the ether between the boys, and as the story progresses, it is these slowly-unfurling threads that add a few extra layers to the relationship. But issues arise with the boys themselves, two over-done performances that come off more annoying than believable, with nothing really honest about who they are and the generation they are part of. It seems impossible for movies these days to really capture the life of young people without pigeon-holing them into cliché, and The Good Neighbor doesn’t do much to break that mold.
The better parts are the larger themes, including parental absence, as the boys seem to work and live entirely independent of supervision. Ethan’s mother (Anne Dudek) is a work-at-night single mom, and shows up only occasionally. This leaves the boys in a state of isolation of sorts, which works well in establishing their motives and ability to keep pushing themselves to press beyond what they should. These lack of boundaries delude the boys into believing they exist in an envelope of security that naturally, seals their fates.
What the film eventually reveals itself to be however, is the real surprise, and while it doesn’t try to be a “twist” in the conventional sense, it is satisfying without being manipulative. Legal questions rightfully arise, and there is a closing sense that suggests fame in any condition, is a tempting lore and for some, that is a goal that only matters.
Director: Kasra Farahani
Writers: Mark Bianculli, Jeff Richard
Stars: James Caan, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist