Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Kasra Farahani
Writer: Mark Bianculli, Jeff Richard
Producer: Rosalie Swedlin, Elana Barry, Giri Tharan, Trevor White, Tim White, Allan Mendelbaum
Stars: James Caan, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Laura Innes, Edwin Hodge, Bailey Noble, Lili Reinhart, Anne Dudek, Mindy Sterling, Tamlyn Tomita, William C. Mitchell
Two teenagers design an elaborate social experiment to see if they can convince an elderly neighbor that his house is haunted.
NOTE: "The Good Neighbor" was previously titled "The Waiting."
Ethan and Sean have a possibly clever, possibly cruel idea for a unique social experiment. With a suite of surreptitiously placed surveillance cameras, and enough smoke and mirror rigging to be David Copperfield stagehands, the two teens set out to see if they can convince irritable old neighbor Harold Grainey that his house is haunted.
Their plan is part prank, part revenge plot, and all kinds of ill-advised as Ethan and Sean gradually discover Grainey may not be the easy mark they presume him to be. Grainey keeps a secret padlocked in his basement. And maintaining that mystery makes the reclusive hermit react to purported paranormal activity in ways that are alarmingly unexpected.
“The Good Neighbor” is not entirely the thriller initially expected based on its simple synopsis. Semi-describable as a modern take on “Rear Window” with a technological twist, more elements of dark drama make their way onto the screen than do typical trappings of straight horror or suburban suspense.
Most of the movie is structured as “found footage” featuring Ethan and Sean outlining their actions for imaginary viewers and logging daily diaries to record reactions. Director Kasra Farahani then flips the “happening now” first-person format by intercutting past and future interludes. Flashbacks fill in the blanks of memories in Grainey’s mind when the boys unleash various bumps in the night. Flash-forwards look ahead to an unspecified ending that sees the story concluding in a courtroom.
Farahani’s choice to hint early and often at the courtroom climax is a curious one not always in the best interest of fostering nail-biting intensity. “The Good Neighbor” wants its audience bracing for an inevitable tragedy so the hi-tech hijinks foreshadow a grim outcome. But an inherent expectation of something awful ahead is already included when watching a movie whose premise and tone suggest it is unlikely to end in a three-person group hug.
One setup in particular asks for suspicion that a certain person is in fatal danger, except a previous scene deflates that balloon by revealing the character’s safe and sound participation in the upcoming finale. It’s impossible to expect a potential ax to the head when that head is previously confirmed as coming away completely intact.
That doesn’t mean “The Good Neighbor” is devoid of suspense. Instead, the atypical thriller style derives tension from feelings of perpetual uncertainty rather than a sense of constant danger. What lurks in the basement, what lands the boys in court, and what ultimately happens to Grainey are ongoing mysteries keeping intrigue high, even when knowing the names of those seeing things through to the end. In this case, visceral exhilaration is not a requirement for the plot to remain engrossing.
Maintaining that momentum is a trio of outstanding performances from the three leads. Logan Miller and Keir Gilchrist essentially play extensions of their respective characters from “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” (review here) and “It Follows” (review here). Miller’s motor-mouthed jackass provides the comic relief yin to Gilchrist’s nebbish nice guy yang. Their particular personalities along with their chemistry together keep juvenile antics and attitudes entertaining, occasionally even endearing, when differently tuned characterizations could easily make them obnoxiously tiresome.
Making a mountain of a character out of a molehill of screen time, James Caan puts on a powerhouse demonstration of how a veteran actor ably elevates a seemingly small part through subtleties evenly in step with juggernaut screen presence. Caan is as engaging as ever in an uncharacteristic role. His gruff tough guy persona is always in play, but he fires up a fragility underneath that humanizes Grainey in an unanticipated manner. Whether the character intends to elicit enmity or empathy, Caan masterfully flips switches that can inspire disapproving headshaking or pull sympathetic heartstrings with equal ease.
By conventional definitions, “The Good Neighbor” is neither a traditional “found footage” film nor a standard suspense movie. Its true status stands as a dramatic parable about the dangers of desiring social media celebrity and the potential damage done by becoming “YouTube famous.” That theme is overdramatized by the ending, though it is no less timely as a cautionary tale concerning internet-era bullying with an unlikely target at the center of its story.
Points are deducted for including flash-forward interruptions subtracting from suspense. Others may dock more for a final message that can be seen as sensationalized. But committed acting carries the drama to a finish line finding “The Good Neighbor” winning out as a compelling character study as well as a thoughtful thriller.
Review Score: 80