Troubled Post-Teens Take Insipid Detour In 'The Road Within'

Directed by: Gren Wells; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: C

Depictions of mental and neurological disorders in cinema can be difficult to critique, especially when filmmakers take great strides to explore the tumultuous reality of what it's like to live under those conditions. Sometimes, however, the dedication poured into getting the details right can detract from telling a credible story built about that hardship. Such is the case for The Road Within, Gren Wells' portrayal of a trio of patients with different disorders -- Tourette syndrome, OCD, and anorexia -- who escape from their hospital environment and embark on a roadtrip towards freedom and self-growth. Talented, courageous actors dedicated to doing justice to the material bring these burdened kids to vivid life, but the contrived happenings along their journey and its wearisome balance of deprecating humor and serious dramatic reflections keep the film's meaningful potential locked down, making it difficult to relish these characters who are so clearly the cornerstone of the film's intentions.

While The Road Within spreads its energy out between the three disorders, the point-of-view mostly falls on Vincent and his acute Tourette syndrome, whose condition really comes to the surface following the death of his terminally-ill mother. His father (Robert Patrick), a remarried politician about to enter into an election, decides it's time to put Vincent in a secluded behavioral facility, one overseen by Dr. Mia Rose (Kyra Sedgwick) that caters to numerous kinds of disorders. There, he's paired off with a roommate, an obsessive-compulsive Brit named Alex (Dev Patel), in hopes that they'll be good for one another, and is shown around the facility by Marie (Zoe Kravitz), a moody anorexic with a dangerous side. Powered by a desire to get away and see the ocean, Marie and Vincent use a window of opportunity to flee the facility, but not without having to drag along Alex in the process. So begins their road-trip escape into freedom, one where they'll hopefully reach their destination before the authorities -- and Vincent's father -- track them down.

A faithful remake of the German film Vincent Wants to Sea, The Road Within attempts to have its cake and eat it too by elevating the reality of the situation for comedic purposes and exploring the realism of the focal conditions. The idea of combining volatile and vulgar Tourette symptoms with delicate obsessive-compulsive and germophobic behavior in a roommate situation -- let alone on the first day that Vincent arrives at the facility -- immediately raises a red flag about the film's awareness, the first of many head-scratcher moments encountered while getting the trio on the road for their inspirational trip. Director Wells tries to make other idiosyncrasies like easily-stolen car keys and kidnapped patients work within the practical space of the facility, but the soberness of fleshing out their debilitating traits in the beginning shines a light on how far-fetched these developments really are in a practical environment. The tone, as a result, confuses with its fickle shifts from taking itself seriously to letting things slide for the sake of happy-go-lucky humor and character insight.

These flawed misfits are the saving grace to The Road Within, largely because of the research and personal experience folded into their characters. A lot of energy was expended on trying to stay faithful and respectful to their individual disorders, especially Vincent's acute Tourette syndrome, hallmarked by violent body flailing and bursts of crass, oftentimes nonsensical dialogue. The sincerity of Robert Sheehan's glances in between Vincent's unpredictable tics shapes into a compelling portrayal of the condition, driven by the provocative nature of how he takes normal human interactions and sabotages them in his mind. Zoe Kravitz' lithe frame and the drowsy, bitter disposition she gives Marie becomes the only constant among the group, though the actress' careful embodiment of her eating disorder encroaches on that, too. Alex's frantic mannerisms aren't something that we haven't seen before in an OCD-addled character, but the rigidity of Dev Patel's body language and his bloodshot eyes bring an authentic intensity to him. There's bravery in these performances, especially when the barriers come down in their camaraderie and they trade barbs about their personal afflictions.

Sadly, the transformative voyage of The Road Within travels down the well-tread, predictable paths of cliche motivational drama focused on coming-of-age and conquering adversity. Romantic dances in the moonlight, hikes up mountaintops to see the world, and resolved arguments and fistfights built around their underlying issues feel like a pastiche of obligations instead of an earnest portrayal of how they might grow during their penniless roadtrip, which isn't helped by the caliber of dialogue between Robert Patrick's conflicted father and Kyra Sedgwick's tolerant doctor as they trail behind them. Perhaps the most frustrating thing comes in how obedient the disorders feel to the story's expressive stratagems, only interrupting their travels at opportune times and never intruding on dramatic moments unless it's by calculation. The Road Within's honest ambitions towards representing these complex conditions surrender to the requisite mechanics of life-affirming conviction to the end, ultimately watering down the diligence of Gren Wells's portrayals with a perfunctory journey that never doesn't feel mapped-out.

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