We may joke that teenage girls are obsessed, but the creators of My Best Friend’s Exorcism take the concept to heart. Based on the book by Grady Hendrix, director Damon Thomas’ adaptation focuses on a pair of inseparable best friends who suffer a devastating blow when one of them is overcome by a satanic spirit. Although this ’80s horror comedy takes an old-fashioned approach to capturing the horrific events, the stunts are lackluster and the comedic hijinks a tiresome tedium. Since there is very little interest in filmmakers developing their characters properly, there is little incentive to remain interested.
Abby’s (Elsie Fisher) biggest fear in life is losing her best friend Gretchen (Amiah Miller). Little does she know that her relationship is being put to the test, and not just because Gretchen is supposed to be moving in the summer. The pair find themselves in a world of their own, a late ’80s dreamland filled with Aqua Net fumes, bombastic fashions and pop star crushes. But occasionally they make way for their classmates, including the achingly shy Glee (Cathy Ang), the brazen fanatic Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and her obnoxious jock friend Wally (Clayton Royal Johnson).
Everything changes for the worse when Margaret invites them to her parents’ secluded cabin in the woods, where everyone drops acid on a dark and spooky night. Abby and Gretchen set out to explore the demolished house across the lake, notorious for being the site of a satanic ritual that resulted in the death of a former student at their high school. When Abby begins to stumble, Gretchen is literally tripped trying to escape the haunted house and abducted by a demonic being. But when she returns, Abby realizes that Gretchen is not herself and begins a quest to save her friend.
Aesthetically, Thomas and his collaborators craft the film with an artistic flourish that harnesses the power of homage without resorting to over-stylization. Rob Givens’ cinematography is slightly influenced by the slasher movies of the ’80s. Practical effects also give it a throwback quality – one that’s remarkable and endearing, if not very refined. Rob Lowry’s soundtrack choices (including Tiffany, Culture Club, A-ha and Blondie) and Ryland Blackinton’s synthesizer-driven score transport us straight into the retro suburbia and act as a sounding board for the characters’ fears.
Narratively, bolts of substance shimmer when brought into the light, but their brilliance is all-too-briefly blinding. A moment when Gretchen and Glee challenge the ingrained misogyny behind teenage magazine quizzes that see women only in relation to men makes for a thoughtful soundbite. But Jenna Lamia’s script is ironically undercut by seeing some of its female characters in a similar light in relation to male characters like Wally, who becomes a game character; Brother Morgan (Cameron Bass), who witnesses Abby’s public humiliation; and Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell), a cheap, religious fitness guru Abby hires to exorcise Gretchen. (The pun “exercise/exorcise” is enough to make you groan.)
Worse, the filmmakers attempt to address thorny issues dealing with self-harm by showing a deranged Gretchen doing so in a toilet stall and disorderly eating, with Margaret being influenced by Gretchen’s “Mean Girl”-inspired nutritional advice. These severe, traumatic illnesses are not used for anything meaningful (commentary or otherwise) but solely as a means of action. Ditto for coming out of a queer character and abandoning that thread for no return to perpetrator Gretchen, who relies on the audience’s rooted interest. She may be a monster in this moment, but there is no turning back from this despicable behavior.
Perhaps most startling is that the two leads are clearly able and willing to tackle many of the undercooked ingredients in the narrative. Fisher, who did a compelling job on Eighth Grade, and Miller, who was captivating on War for the Planet of the Apes, have a sweet, understated chemistry. Fisher’s fear, especially in the pivotal betrayal scene, is palpable. Miller displays impressive gymnastics, twisting her body in all directions as the demon announces its presence. But the material frequently fails the characters, giving them superficial insecurities with puddle-deep poignancy that the actors struggle to overcome through their performances.
With a snarky, innovative, and feminist film like Jennifer’s Body (a clear influence on this story) already in existence, it’s a wonder anyone would create an inferior, more frustrating iteration. Even in the most general terms, it doesn’t add up. One half wishes the spirit of another film possessed this one, which infuriatingly ends with Animal House-style credits for characters who never deserve our affection, let alone respect. The power of Christ, Satan, or any other force compels you to keep your hands off it.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/my-best-friends-exorcism-review-1235387680/ “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” Review: A terribly unfunny horror comedy