So, I also highlighted this trailer. I’ll talk about this movie as well.
I really liked this book by Grady Hendrix, and it’s one of those books that seems to naturally translate well to a screenplay (though the credits call it a teleplay). It’s not a super dense or super long novel. It has a strong focus on its characters. It’s structured in a way that naturally lends itself towards how we think movies work. It seems like an easy lift. I think the film, written by Jenna Lamia and directed by Damon Thomas, manages well enough to capture a good bulk of what made the book fun. It’s missing something important, though. I haven’t read the book in several years, so this is really judging the film entirely on its own.
The film’s chief failing is really felt in its first act where we are introduced to Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller), best friends at a Catholic high school. The story is really the story of a friendship taken to its limits within the horror genre. It works most when it’s about a friendship that is falling apart, that could convincingly be told even without the horror elements, and this film fumbles that in its first act. The friendship shown between Abby and Gretchen is too thinly drawn, mostly hinging on the opening scene where the two (their faces hidden through most of it for some reason while an overactive editor cuts the scene to shreds) have a phone conversation before school from their bedrooms. It’s the beginnings of building that relationship, but by the time they get to school, we’re suddenly in the entire friend group. We have to spend time with them to build up their characters and the whole group dynamic. This movie is only 97-minutes long. Would another five minutes with these girls to give them a deeper connection really have hurt it?
The rest of the friend group is Glee (Cathy Ang), Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu), and Margaret’s boyfriend Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson). Amid scenes that introduce us to the Catholic high school world, the girls plan a trip out to one of their summer houses on a remote lake for the weekend. There, Abby and Gretchen, after getting shocked by Wallace’s sudden appearance at the house, go off and walk around in the dark until they come upon an abandoned building where spooky things happen, the girls get separated with Gretchen getting left behind, and Abby bringing the other girls back (Wallace having gone home) to find Gretchen alive and angry at Abby for leaving her behind. Have you seen the title of the film? Yes, she’s been possessed.
The second act of the film is where the film begins to lean into the horror elements, and where the film reveals the error of the thin treatment of the introduction of Abby and Gretchen’s relationship. The demon possessing Gretchen sets out to isolate Gretchen from her friends to completely take over, and that means turning Gretchen against everyone, first and foremost Abby. That happens through embarrassments at school, especially around a crush Abby has regarding Brother Morgan (Cameron Bass) that Gretchen makes public in rather explicit terms. She also convinces Glee that Margaret is a lesbian in love with her, and since Glee is closeted it leads to a reveal that is embarrassing all around. She also convinces Margaret to start taking lots of a diet drink to lose weight, which ends with a gross development (that I remember being much more ornate in the book). The friend group is shattered, and it seems like something bad is going to happen.
Abby reaches out for help from Christian (Christopher Lowell) one of the Lemon Brothers, a trio who use weightlifting to advance the message of Christ (these sorts of “cool” Christians are always somewhere in the real world), who, as the runt of the litter, decides that this is his opportunity to prove himself by performing an exorcism. Well, the exorcism is in the title.
The point of the story is about two girls who are growing apart as they grow up and finding a way to maintain their relationship despite everything. This is most obvious in the plot point that Gretchen’s parents are moving away. People change, and we have to find ways to deal with it. This works best with a great set of characters, and the script of My Best Friend’s Exorcism just isn’t meaty enough when it comes to that core relationship. However, just enough is there so that these final scenes of Abby having to take over the exorcism that it functions. And yet, it’s meant to be an emotionally draining scene, and this isn’t Regan and Chris MacNeil.
I also have a small complaint because the book is so tied to Charleston, South Carolina but the film was obviously not filmed here. There’s a nod late in the film to the state where a moving truck is emblazoned with the blue state flag, but, for instance, Gretchen’s house is in Mount Pleasant. Margaret’s house is downtown. There’s a nice scene detailed how dangerous it felt to drive over the old bridge that connected Mount Pleasant to Charleston. Losing that and filming the movie in Atlanta robs the setting of a specificity that helps give the story character, replaced by a relatively generic look at the 80s in a place that looks almost generically American suburban.
That being said, it isn’t bad. The group of friends works better than the core relationship. Gretchen’s descent is well shown. The acting is fine all around, and Lowell provides a good, late comedic presence. I somewhat enjoyed the overall experience, but I just found the key element to be too thinly written to work as well as it should.