D: Gren Wells / 100m
Cast: Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick, Ali Hills
Following the death of his mother, Vincent (Sheehan) is persuaded by his estranged father, Robert (Patrick), to attend an experimental treatment centre for his Tourette’s. After meeting with the head of the centre, Dr Rose (Sedgwick), Vincent is taken to the room where he’ll be staying, and meets OCD sufferer, Alex (Patel). Alex is horrified at having a roommate and does what he can to get Vincent moved to another room but his plans fail. Vincent also meets Marie (Kravitz), who is there because she suffers from anorexia (and who almost died a few months before).
Vincent and Marie strike up a friendship, but when he gets into trouble with Dr Rose, it’s she who offers an unexpected solution: take Dr Rose’s car and go wherever he wants to go. Vincent decides on the ocean so that he can scatter his mother’s ashes. He and Marie take off one night, but not without first having to abduct Alex and take him with them (he was going to inform on them to Dr Rose). When their absence is discovered, Dr Rose contacts Vincent’s father and tells him what’s happened. Despite being a politician in the middle of an election campaign, Robert agrees to come and help find his son.
He and Dr Rose struggle to get along as they pursue the runaways, while Vincent, Marie and Alex begin to forge stronger relationships. When Robert and Dr Rose catch up with them at a lake, they manage to get away. As they travel to the ocean they begin to learn to trust each other, and Vincent and Marie grow closer, while Robert, through talking about his son to Dr Rose, begins to realise that he’s not been the kind of father that Vincent needed while he was growing up. Meanwhile, Vincent and Marie’s relationship becomes intimate, but this angers Alex, who has seen her manipulate other patients at the centre in the same way. He takes off and leaves them stranded.
They catch up with him at the next town, and there is a violent confrontation, but it leads to a reconciliation, and they carry on to the ocean. But when they get there, Marie has a relapse and is taken to hospital, leaving Vincent to make the hardest decision of his life so far.
A dramatic comedy – or comic drama, whichever you prefer – The Road Within is an enjoyable, if formulaic, road movie that pitches itself somewhere to the left of inspirational, and partly to the right of sentimental. It’s a feelgood movie about people who can’t always, if ever, feel good about themselves, and as such has an air of wish fulfilment about it that it never quite shakes off. Alex’s OCD is a good case in point: he has to open and close doors four times before going through them but this comes and goes at the script’s discretion, and when he doesn’t do it it’s ignored rather than celebrated. But in the end, the movie is intelligent enough not to administer any miracle cures to Vincent, Marie or Alex, just some appropriate development in the way they deal with their conditions.
First-time director Wells, working from her own script, creates a narrative that most viewers will recognise from other road movies, and while sometimes familiarity can cause viewers to react in a blasé, seen-it-all-before way, here the journey is entirely important for the way in which it makes the characters interact. If the movie had been set entirely at the centre, then the metaphor of travelling toward an understanding of themselves would have been negated. And sometimes, comfort zones have to be left behind if we’re going to make any progress. These are obvious points to make, but the movie makes them with a sincerity and a sense of humour that allows the viewer to invest in the characters and care about what happens to them.
Thanks to the cast’s clever and often intuitive performances, the characters of Vincent, Marie and Alex never seem like the caricatures they could so easily have turned out to be. Vincent lives in the shadow of his father’s disappointment in having a son who causes him embarrassment, while Marie’s rebellious nature hides a young woman’s need for approbation despite how her illness makes her feel about herself. And Alex wants to be normal even though he knows at the same time that the likelihood of that ever happening is so minimal as to be impossible. Sheehan displays a vulnerable side to Vincent’s character that makes him instantly likeable, but there’s a deeply angry side to him that Sheehan exhibits with equal effectiveness, both aspects given due weight throughout. Kravitz gives Marie a bruised quality that highlights the suffering she’s endured and makes her the most damaged of the trio; it’s a surprisingly delicate performance, and one that keeps the viewer’s attention on her in any scene she’s in.
Patel, however, operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kravitz, portraying Alex as a screaming, panic-driven doomsayer – every pothole he hits while driving is someone he’s run over, like a pregnant woman – and providing someone for Vincent and Marie to play tricks on. It’s a confident performance, strident at times, but as with Sheehan and Kravitz, he portrays the character’s burden with sincerity and no small amount of sympathy. (This helps offset the several occasions when his tantrums make the viewer want to reach through the screen and give him a good slap – or wish the other characters would.)
The movie is attractive to watch, with beautiful location work at Yosemite National Park proving a highlight, and the various themes of longing, connection and displacement given pertinent, if sometimes too gentle, attention, and Wells’ direction keeps the focus on the main characters’ often unsteady but quietly determined steps toward making their lives better, even if it’s just in small ways. This keeps the movie grounded and credible, and if the way in which Robert opens up to Dr Rose near the movie’s end seems a little too predictable or unlikely, then it’s a small misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable production.
Rating: 8/10 – not without some minor flaws – but none that keep the movie from being entertaining – The Road Within takes three people with serious illnesses and refuses to use those illnesses to define them; blackly comic in places – Vincent’s outburst at his mother’s funeral sets the tone – and with its heart in the right place, this is a movie that rewards the viewer on a small scale, but very effectively nevertheless.