An indie film, “The Road Within,” opens in only three theaters in Los Angeles and New York April 17 and may or may not expand. But it’s well worth catching, either in those theaters or on VOD platforms. For it’s one of those rare, rare movies that deals with challenging personality disorders with both wit and wisdom.
What makes the film work is that writer-director Gren Wells, in her directing debut no less, gets the tone just right. So often when filmmakers try to deal with handicaps with comic flourishes, you get nearly unwatchable movies that either pander to or patronize such disorders without shedding any light on the struggles themselves.
Wells, who admits to having suffered from anorexia earlier in her life, makes no bones about the inner torment of her mentally challenged characters but by the same token shows you that sometimes the only thing that works — the only thing that can get one through a tough moment — is to laugh at one’s self.
Few filmmakers are able to achieve that “it’s-so-funny-it-hurts” tone. Blake Edwards managed it in a few films — and fell short in others —but clearly it’s very tricky. So this is a remarkable film, a dramady (for lack of a better word) that achieves a real understanding of issues that thoroughly puzzle outsiders and often defeat the best efforts of even those treating the afflicted.
The film is based on a 2010 German film, “Vincent Wants to Sea,” which won that country’s Lola Awards for best film and actor. This English-language remake benefits hugely in the casting of three outstanding young actors.
You probably know Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” and HBO’s “The Newsroom” and Zoë Kravitz of “Divergent” and the “X-Men” series, but for me the revelation is Robert Sheehan, an Irish-born actor who pulls off not only the American accent but the ticks and mannerisms of full-blown Tourette’s syndrome.
Sheehan is a highly talented and charismatic actor who appears destined for stardom. Indeed he has just moved to L.A. after having built up an impressive acting resume in film, television and on stage while living in London.
In the movie he plays Vincent, a youth suffering from Tourette’s who wants to travel to the Pacific Ocean to spread his mother’s ashes. She has just died of alcoholism and since she was his only caregiver one can only imagine what that home life was like for a highly sensitive, anguished young man.
His distant and dismissive politician father Robert (Robert Patrick) dumps him in an institution, hoping Vincent will be out of sight and mind. It’s here he meets his new roommate, Alex (Patel), who suffers from OCD, and Marie (Kravitz), who has returned to the center because of anorexia.
Marie is somewhat attracted to the newcomer but Alex cannot tolerate even the idea of sharing a room with anyone. For that room must be kept constantly clean, orderly and germ free. Did I mention Alex must open and shut a door four times before he can walk through the doorway?
No one stays at the center for long though. Anxious to flee the institute that bothers them nearly as much as their own afflictions, Vincent and Marie steal a car belonging to its head, Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick), then set out for the ocean to dump Vincent’s mom’s ashes. When Alex moves to stop them, they kidnap him.
So coming-of-age meets a road picture but with the most unusual three musketeers imaginable. As they set an erratic course for the coast, Dr. Rose and Robert pursue the stolen car although what they intend to do once they capture the trio is no more clear to them than to the threesome.
The journey with its incidents both humorous and risky provides a platform for Wells to gently probe the inner lives of her trio on the lam, trying to see what hopes and aspirations can reside in lives this shattered by personality disorders.
Indeed they themselves ask questions of each other, Vincent struggling to understand why Marie can’t just eat a bit of food and Marie to comprehend while Vincent can’t head off his ticks and seizures before they strike.
Meanwhile Alex, who eventually decides he doesn’t mind being kidnapped, becomes their comic foil but only up to the point that both escapees begin to understand how little control he has of his own life and behavior.
While the movie clearly is traveling from Point A to B, forward momentum comes from character and not any screenwriting GPS. Adventures and incidents en route stem directly from their dysfunctional inner clockwork and growing camaraderie.
The interplay between the dad and shrink is a little more forced and on-the-money. Their pairing is designed to provide backstories for the fleeing trio while demonstrating that their own weaknesses as healer and father have contributed to rather than lessened these young people’s struggles.
Some good revelations do come out of this subplot and Patrick, a fine journeyman actor in countless films, gets to show his acting chops in one of the better, more sustained roles of his career.
The key thing is the utter empathy with which Wells probes her characters’ considerable problems, demonstrating not only how well this ex-actress works with the actors under her direction but how profoundly her writing reflects a deep understanding of how seemingly surreal afflictions can attack unfortunate victims.
Sheehan’s courageous performance underlines the damage both parents have inadvertently caused, no doubt going back to his diagnosis, and the role compassion must play in pulling him out of his self-imposed funk.
Kravitz’s Maria is quick to laugh and flirt but grows as still as can be when confronted with even a morsel of food or comments about her body. Her self-confidence can vanish in a flash.
Patel, who always plays such sunny characters, leaves this comfort zone far behind as his character must enact over and over again debilitating routines of excessive compulsion.
“The Road Within,” if nothing else, is one of the best acted films of the year.
Opens: April 17, 2015 Los Angeles, New York (WellGoUSA and Amplify)
Production: Amasia Entertainment, Troika Pictures, Coup d’Etat Films, Roberi Media
Cast: Robert Sheehan, Zoë Kravitz, Dev Patel, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick
Director-screenwriter: Gren Wells
Based on the screenplay by: Florian David Fitz
Producers: Bradley Gallo, Michael A. Helfant, Robert L. Stein, Brent Emery, Guy J. Louthan
Executive producers: William Gallo, Viola Jager
Director of photography: Christopher Baffa
Production designer: Nanci Roberts
Music: Josh Debney, The Newton Brothers
Costume designer: Magali Guidasci
Editor: Terel Gibson
No rating, 100 minutes