One of the sleeper films at this year’s SXSW festival was Kasra Farahani’s The Good Neighbor, a psychological drama with an understated, yet no less impressive turn from renowned actor James Caan (Misery, The Godfather). It is a technically impressive debut feature from Farahani, and despite some pacing issues, the film emerges as one of the biggest surprises of the festival.The Good Neighbor packs an emotional wallop of an ending that makes the slow pace of the film worthwhile.
In The Good Neighbor, teenagers Shawn (Keir Gilchrist, It Follows) and Ethan (Logan Miller, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) attempt to trick their elderly neighbor Harold Grainey (Caan) into believing that his house is haunted as part of a social experiment. Through a series of escalating “haunts”, the boys prod the man further and further in order to get a reaction. As their suspicions grow and the tension mounts, they realize too late that the man they’re manipulating is the last person they should’ve chosen for their project.
The majority ofThe Good Neighbor is shot using surveillance cameras that Shawn and Ethan set up around the house of Grainey when he is out grocery shopping one day. Other scenes are filmed using hand-held cameras that Shawn and Ethan use to record each others reactions and thought during the experiment, which goes on for roughly six weeks. Peppered throughout the film are flashbacks into Grainey’s past and flashforwards to a trial using a non-diegetic camera. This gives the film a “found footage” narrative style, but Farahani is able to weave between the different styles and timelines with an incredible amount of success, especially for a first-time director. There are no moments where you will wonder why the boys are still filming, a common weakness of the sub-genre. It doesn’t share many other traits with horror films, save for the “haunts” that Shawn and Ethan set up and the mystery of what Grainey is hiding in his basement, but what eventually transpires certainly is horrifying.
The narrative does unfortunately move at a snail’s pace, and the fact that neither Shawn nor Ethan are likable (particularly Miller, who is building his repertoire of playing douchebag characters) does hurt the viewing experience. Their scenes together, which comprise the majority of the first two-thirds of the film, are the least interesting in the film only because of how frustrating they are as characters. This of course is the intention, so the film is successful in that respect, and both Miller and Gilchrist are fine in their roles. Farahani does weave in the aforementioned flashforwards, which feature an impending trial. These scenes foreshadow a tragedy that occurs at the end of the experiment in order to inject some suspense to the proceedings but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should.
Also mind-boggling is the fact that neither boy’s parents have any suspicions as to what they are up to. Shawn’s parents are divorced and thus he usually always stays at Ethan’s house. Ethan’s mom is a single mother and doesn’t seem to care about the fact that Ethan has a wall of computers with security footage in his room. The movie does address that last bit slightly, but it requires too much suspension of disbelief for you to buy it.
Caan is of course the standout here, delivering an understated performance with extremely minimal dialogue. Since the majority of his scenes are just surveillance footage, the actor must rely on subtle facial expressions to create a character that the audience doesn’t know much about. It should come as no surprise that Grainey is the most interesting character in the film, and as flashbacks slowly reveal more and more about his character, you get a clearer idea of just who he is. Supporting turns from Laura Innes (ER) and Anne Dudek (Big Love) are also strong.
Unfortunately the most affecting part ofThe Good Neighbor is the ending, which I won’t discuss here in too much detail. Suffice it to say that while what eventually occurs is predictable, the emotional resonance it has sticks with you long after you leave the theater. Out of all of the films I’ve seen at SXSW so far, this is one that I keep thinking about, and any film that can do that deserves a commendation.
The Good Neighbor is a very strong directorial debut for Farahani, and showcases strong performances throughout. Unfortunately it does run into some pacing issues and suffers from a duo of unlikable protagonists, but makes up for it all in the final reel with an emotional sucker punch of an ending.