It’s easy to see what prompted Netflix to pony up a cool $17 million for Sundance Midnight entry It’s What’s Inside. A frantically paced, visually flashy psychological thriller with elements of sci-fi and horror, writer-director Greg Jardin’s first feature paves the way for a sequel, perhaps even a franchise. The central device — which press notes request be kept under wraps — would just need to find its way into the hands of a new group of attractive 20-somethings with uncomfortable secrets to be revealed. No star salaries are required and it pretty much all takes place in a single setting.
In addition to making commercials and music videos, Jardin has been a go-to guy for Netflix promos, so it’s fitting that his entry into the genre big leagues will be via the streaming platform. There’s a strong chance that will also prove a stepping-stone to the Hollywood studio career he appears to be angling for, if the aggressive slickness and show-offy bag of editing and camera tricks he employs to keep the chaotic plot spinning are any indication. And good luck to him; there’s nothing wrong with ambition.
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But all the nervy cutting, the pirouetting pans and off-kilter angles, the dexterous split-screen and the bombardment of eclectic music cues — many of them dropped in with archly emphatic force — can only distract from the lack of depth for so long. As the plot becomes more contorted, its dangerous party game challenging the audience right alongside the characters to keep track of who’s who, the stylistic flourishes start to become intrusive. Especially when the movie is basically a high-concept rehash of 2022’s Bodies Bodies Bodies, with less of the wicked satirical zing.
The story of a group of former friends reuniting eight years after college is not built around the soon-to-be bride and groom, Sophia (Aly Nordlie) and Reuben (Devon Terrell), dubbed #reuphia in the latter’s flurry of pre-wedding social media posts. The main focus is their friends Shelby (Brittany O’Grady) and Cyrus (James Morosini), together since college but still not hitched, a subject of much nosy speculation.
Shelby is first seen applying lipstick and cooing provocatively into a mirror while half-listening to an Instagram video posted by another college friend, popular influencer Nikki (Alycia Debnam-Clarke), who shares selfies and tutorials about spicing up relationships and other topics on which she’s a self-appointed expert. She calls her “work” Nikkipedia. The advice doesn’t seem to be doing much for Shelby; she’s fed up with Cyrus getting busy with online porn but showing minimal sexual interest in his longtime girlfriend.
Jardin provides a winking tipoff of complications to come later by having Shelby don a wig not unlike Nikki’s long blond tresses for her abortive roleplay attempt to get Cyrus in the mood.
Shelby’s petulance makes her want to back out of attending the wedding, but they head off anyway, barely speaking as they take the Oregon mountain roads to a palatial estate tucked away among the pine trees. The fancy joint was owned by Reuben’s late mother, an artist whose giant metal vagina sculpture is hard to miss right out front.
Reuben has cut Sophia loose so he can spend his last night as a single man kicking back with old friends, most of whom haven’t seen each other since college. Those in attendance include Nikki and the smartphone from which she’s never separated; obnoxious Dennis (Gavin Leatherwood), whose Blaccent and tatts announce how cool he thinks he is; boho Buddhist Maya (Nina Bloomgarten), just back from a retreat; and Brooke (Reina Hardesty), who makes tacky art that everybody pretends to admire.
None of these people is someone with whom you’d want to spend a night at Vagina Mansion, or whatever it’s called. But unlike the Gen Z houseguests in Bodies Bodies Bodies, whose vapidity yielded caustic humor, this bunch is so lacking in dimension as characters they’re just interchangeably dull. Or annoying. The script doesn’t explain why Reuben’s closest friends are people who have mostly not stayed in touch.
After they all hit the wine and weed hard enough to get relaxed, Reuben drops the news that he’s invited Forbes (David Thompson), a “weird genius” who was expelled from college under a cloud after some shady business at a party involving his unstable younger sister. He has supposedly been off somewhere working in tech ever since. Right on cue, Forbes walks in acting cagey and holding a large green suitcase that he doesn’t seem to want to let out of his hands.
It soon emerges that the suitcase contains some mysterious, top-secret gadgetry that Forbes and “my team” have been working on. He’s brought it along to try out on them as an elaborate party game. What it actually does won’t be revealed here; let’s just say it’s the equivalent of the ceramic hand in Talk to Me, providing an intense 20-second experience. But no one in a quasi-horror movie ever had much time for moderation, so after a trippy first round they go back for more, which is when the trouble starts.
To describe it in the most general terms possible, the gadget allows each of them to gain intimate, empathetic knowledge of one other person in the group, with everyone else required to identify who that person is in a guessing game. But Jardin doesn’t show much imagination in his exploration of what that kind of access can reveal, beyond hidden resentments, long-burning romantic fixations and dishonesty in relationships.
Shelby and Cyrus, in particular, find themselves uncomfortably exposed when the others become privy to their relationship malaise. But all this is fundamentally soap steeped in sci-fi disorientation.
Making each of the matchups strictly male-female limits the potential for juicier rivalries or homoerotic tensions to surface, and racial differences within the group — with a Black character test-driving the identity of a white dude and vice versa — yield nothing more interesting than a wisecrack or two.
Naturally, there are casualties, which spreads panic and causes the rules to keep changing as identities are shuffled, perhaps irreversibly. But by that point, all the increasingly hysterical participants, with their cross purposes and betrayals and manipulations and cunning switcheroos, just become a shrill blur. The director keeps leaning harder on the accelerator, all the way through an over-elucidated coda that ushers in another character for additional revelations designed to throw us even deeper into confusion. Which is fine, because the more Jardin explains, the flimsier it all seems.
Maybe the plot intricacies can more or less be pieced together, but to what purpose? In his director’s statement, Jardin claims to be dismantling the male gaze to examine the commodification of sexualized fantasies by the media and the impossible pressure it places on our relationships. What? None of that is up there on the screen in what plays out almost like a 21st century techno version of a ‘70s key party, with a hidden puppet-master seeding chaos.
The commentary on social media is mostly facile, although a humiliating trick played on Nikki is devilishly funny and some of the flashback-recap sequences make zippy use of online video.
The cast is solid enough, embodying their own characters along with traits of others. The standout is O’Grady, even if nothing she’s doing here compares to her nuanced performance as the tagalong friend to Sydney Sweeney’s character on season one of The White Lotus. On that job, she was working with a writer-director who showed an interest in his actors. To Jardin, they just seem like pawns.
Very little suspense is organically mined from the story or characters; it’s all in the “Hey, look what I can do!” exhibition of Jardin’s undeniably impressive stylistic command. Why linger on a face or let a loaded piece of dialogue resonate when you can have the camera whipping around or careening off into some other artfully lit recess of the sprawling funhouse and its grounds?
There’s initial pleasure in the confidence with which Jardin uses sound and light and color and incessant movement and playfully counterintuitive vintage music choices to create a destabilized environment. But there’s not enough going on behind the virtuosic smoke and mirrors.
The director is without question a bold visual stylist with a ton of talent. What he’s not, yet, is much of a storyteller, which might make it useful to bring in an extra pair of scripting hands next time — especially if he signs up for the inevitable sequel and hopes to maximize the considerable potential of his premise. As it is though, It’s What’s Inside is hollow.
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