I can say right now that any parent who watches The Boy Behind the Door is likely to have stronger feelings than I do about this film, good or bad. Premiering earlier at Fantastic Fest, before playing to the midnight crowd for AFI Fest (yes, it’s virtual, but I stayed up late to watch it because, “Hey, it’s a genre thriller!”), this is a movie looking to capitalize on some of the worst “what if” scenarios involving children in peril. Thanks to a very stripped down presentation, and strong work from the young actors, the film gets its desired effect.
Things kick off right away with the knowledge that two kids have been kidnapped. Kevin (Ezra Dewey) has been taken away into the large secluded house, while Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) has been stashed in a trunk. There’s a brief flashback to a few hours earlier to provide a bit of context, but for the most part, we are watching most of the movie from Bobby’s perspective, and in a constant state of panic when it comes to these young characters attempting to get out of their dire situation.
The Boy Behind the Door can be an uncomfortable movie to watch precisely because of these kids’ young age. John Watts’ Cop Car had this going for it as well. Following along with pre-teen boys (with the most innocent faces) is obviously a specific choice, as we can really feel the vulnerability they have to all that’s going on around them. Without delving in too far, there are a few implications as to what’s in store for them, and it’s not pretty. Two villains (Micah Hauptman and Kristin Bauer van Straten) are the major threats to deal with, and seeing them given the opportunity to behave in such a threatening and deadly manner increases the tension dramatically, given their young opponents.
That in mind, what works about the film is its focus on a cat-and-mouse struggle to get ahead of one another, rather than a gross movie about torturing children. Much like Panic Room or Don’t Breathe, there is a level of fun to be found in the scary sense, as we largely follow Bobby after he escapes from the trunk and attempts to sneak around the house without being caught. It leads to many tense scenes, while the film does a fine job making the geography clear.
Knowing the setup is always an important part of a film like this, as we only have so much to rely on when thrown into the thick of things so quickly. If anything, while a tight 87 minutes (with credits), I could have used a bit more context to flesh things out more. Not that I need too much on the villains’ side of things (a clear bumper sticker and shots lifted from The Shining do their job, I guess), but leaning more on getting in and out of this particular story only does so much to leave me with something to chew on.
At the same time, the torment and violence these kids are met with is impactful in the moment. In particular, Dewey’s Kevin suffers quite a bit at his own hand due to his efforts to escape his nightmarish prison. At the same time, Chavis (who provides an excellent performance overall) gets many meaty scenes pushing him to physical limits and emotional ones. To make a film like this, where a character has to deal with the ramifications of their actions and contend with pumping adrenaline, means playing into a certain style of performance, and Chavis does a terrific job.
On the villains’ side, there’s only so much to say from a character standpoint, as they are left intentionally vague as far as their depth. However, Bauer van Straten, in particular, gets a lot of time to react to her scenario, and it’s not the sort of goofy fun you get from the Wet Bandits in Home Alone. Watching her rant and rave, kick kids, threaten them, and more all make for a wild ride when considering, again, how young these kids are and how malicious the intent is.
Writers and directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell do a fine job maintaining a level of intensity that is certainly commendable. The actors’ strong work to hold onto the terror they face is certainly worthwhile for anyone looking to see a pretty non-stop ride when it comes to suspenseful features. The minimalist nature of the story and characters does enough for the film, I suppose, which only helps thanks to the friendship we know is shared between the two kids. It all adds up to a package containing nuance to a point, but plenty of suspenseful turns and brutal efficiency on the part of the screenplay and the ride the audience goes on.