The Road Within, 2016.
Directed by Gren Wells.
Starring Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Sheehan, Robert Patrick and Kyra Sedgwick.
After his mother passes away, Vincent (Robert Sheehan) is sent to an experimental treatment centre for his Tourette’s. While there, he befriends an anorexic girl called Marie (Zoë Kravitz) and together, the two steal a car to escape. As they leave, the pair are confronted by an OCD patient called Alex (Dev Patel) who joins them on a painful journey of self-discovery.
The first few minutes of The Road Within are a nightmare for politically correct audiences. Opening with the funeral of Vincent’s recently deceased mother, we sit and watch as he struggles to control his Tourette’s during the sermon. Vincent’s condition is clearly making the other attendees uncomfortable, including his own father (Robert Patrick), and as his physical tics and vocal outbursts worsen, things escalate until Vincent calls the priest a “paedophile” and “fucking cunt” before running out in shame.
This first scene is also the films best, accurately depicting a key fact about mental illness that many choose to ignore, that people can’t always control their own behaviour, no matter how much they may try. Using the funeral of Vincent’s mother to portray this hard truth is a masterstroke, immediately encapsulating the oppressive horror one must feel when their body and mind turn against them.
Of the three leads, Sheehan is the strongest, juggling Vincent’s swearing and physical tics with a surprisingly capable American accent that holds up well against the rest of the cast. It’s a markedly different role from anything that Sheehan has tackled before, although the bad language is certainly reminiscent of his star-making turn in the British show Misfits, and his charisma shines consistently throughout. At one moment, we’re laughing alongside Vincent as he enjoys his newfound freedom and in the next, all we want to do is find a way to comfort him.
Joining Vincent on his road trip are Alex and Marie, two other teenagers at the surprisingly empty experimental centre who are both struggling with their own internal issues.
Up until now, Patel hasn’t lived up to the promise of earlier work like Skins and Slumdog Millionaire, but here, he excels with a powerhouse performance of a boy suffering from OCD. Alex’s anxiety is palpable and Patel carefully handles both the nervous restraint of his characters rituals and the inevitable blow-ups that explode out of his frustration. Kravitz also impresses as the quietly confident, yet vulnerable Marie, whose struggle with anorexia is unfortunately sidelined for the majority of the movie. It’s a shame, as the moments when Kravitz’s tough exterior begin to crack are among the films most affecting.
Where The Road Within truly excels is the way in which it humanises the people affected by these disorders. Within the interactions of the central trio lie a number of insightful moments that veer between hilarious and heartbreaking, all of which unfold in a surprisingly coherent manner. From one second, Vincent describes the experience of suffering from Tourette’s like there’s “A clown in my head. He shits between my thoughts,” and the next, he painfully describes his brain as “broken”.
Director Wells plays with each of these psychological conditions for laughs at times, but only in a way that the characters themselves would deem appropriate, encouraging us to laugh alongside them and empathise, rather than feel outright pity. During a particularly heated fight towards the end, Vincent calls Alex “A terrorist arsehole”, yet the trio all laugh it out, alleviating a situation that some audiences could have taken offence to.
Using the structure of a comedy road movie to portray mental illness is a tricky proposition, but Wells’s screenplay works at its best when dealing with the vast array of psychological disorders on display, improving upon the German film that it’s derived from (Vincent Wants To Sea) with more natural dialogue and frenetic camera work that reflects the inner turmoil each character faces.
Unfortunately, Wells’s screenplay doesn’t fare as well narratively, adhering to the original films basic plot structure with little invention. Road trip movies are linear by their very nature, but the journey of self discovery depicted in The Road Within is just as cliched as the film’s title itself and often feels aimless in its approach.
The intermittently cheesy tone of The Road Within is enhanced tenfold by the score, almost as though the director deliberately sought to deny audiences a connection with the material in some of the films most important moments. This becomes particularly notable in one key scene where a romantic dynamic between Vincent and Marie is instantly ruined thanks to the introduction of tacky music that could have been lifted out of any Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
Somewhat ironically, there’s a fantastic movie hidden deep within The Road Within. Wells intertwines moments of genuine, laugh-out loud humour with heartbreaking pathos, treating the range of psychological disorders on display in a sensitive and respectful manner. Frankly, it’s shocking that The Road Within wasn’t recognised more by award bodies and the industry at large for the acting on display, despite being somewhat impeded by the mechanical script and Wells’s perfunctory direction.
Those hoping for a tone reminiscent of either Sheehan’s Misfits or Patel’s classic run on Skins should lower their expectations, but make no mistake; The Road Within is an important movie, one that gives voice to a marginalised minority that deserves to be heard by a far wider audience. Darker doesn’t always mean better, but if another filmmaker decides to tackle the material for a third time, they should consider striking a stronger balance between the films moments of levity and the harsh reality of these teenagers lives.
The Road Within is available to watch now on digital platforms. For more information, visit the official Facebook account here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
David Opie – follow him on Twitter, add him on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org