We can joke that teenage girls are possessed, but the creators of “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” take this concept to heart. Based on the book by Grady Hendrix, director Damon Thomas’ adaptation centers on a pair of inseparable best friends who face a crushing blow when one of them is overtaken by a satanic spirit. Although this ’80s horror-comedy takes an old-school approach to capturing gruesome events, the stunts are lackluster and the comedic hijinks are boring. With very little interest from the filmmakers to properly develop their characters, there’s little incentive to stay interested.
Abby’s (Elsie Fisher) greatest fear in life is losing her best friend Gretchen (Amiah Miller). Little does she know their relationship will be tested, and not just because Gretchen has to move out this summer. The pair are in a world of their own, a late ’80s dreamland filled with Aqua Net vapers, explosive fashions and pop star crushes. But they sometimes make room for their classmates, including shy Glee (Cathy Ang), brash bigot Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu), and her obnoxious jock boyfriend Wally (Clayton Royal Johnson).
Everything changes for the worse once Margaret invites them to her parents’ remote cabin in the woods where, one dark and scary night, everyone is dropping acid. Abby and Gretchen wander off, exploring the doomed house across the lake, infamous for being the site of a satanic ritual that claimed the life of a former student at their high school. As Abby begins to trip, Gretchen literally gets tripped trying to escape the haunted house and is snatched away by a demonic entity. However, when she returns, Abby notices that Gretchen is not herself and begins a quest to save her friend.
As for the aesthetic, Thomas and his collaborators stylize the film with an artistic prowess that harnesses the power of homage, but doesn’t collapse into over-stylization. Rob Givens’ cinematography draws a slight influence from ’80s slasher films. The practical effects also give it a throwback quality – a remarkable and endearing quality, if not terribly sophisticated. Rob Lowry’s selections of soundtracks (which include Tiffany, Culture Club, A-ha and Blondie) and Ryland Blackinton’s synthesized score transport us straight to retro suburbia, acting as a sounding board for the characters’ fears.
Narratively, flashes of substance flicker when brought to light, but their brilliance dazzles only too briefly. A moment of Gretchen and Glee challenging the ingrained misogyny behind teen magazine quizzes, which only see women over men, makes for a thoughtful soundbite. But Jenna Lamia’s storyline is ironically undermined by the fact that a few of her female characters are seen in a similar light to male characters like Wally, who becomes a pawn; Brother Morgan (Cameron Bass), who witnesses Abby’s public humiliation; and Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell), a low-rent religious fitness guru whom Abby enlists to exorcise Gretchen. (The pun on “exercise/exorcism” is enough to make people groan.)
Worse still, the filmmakers try to tackle sensitive issues around self-harm, showing a distraught Gretchen doing it in a bathroom stall and messy eating, leaving Margaret swayed by “Mean Girl”-inspired dietary advice. by Gretchen. These serious and traumatic illnesses are not used for anything meaningful (commentary or otherwise), but exclusively as plot devices. The same can be said for the exit of a queer character and the abandonment of this thread without consideration for the author, Gretchen, which depends on the rooting interest of the public. She may be a monster at the time, but there’s no turning back from this heinous behavior.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that the two lead actresses are clearly able and willing to tackle many of the undercooked ingredients of the narrative. Fisher, who did compelling work in “Eighth Grade,” and Miller, who was captivating in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” have sweet, understated chemistry. Fisher’s angst, especially in the pivotal betrayal scene, is palpable. Miller shows impressive gymnastics, contorting his body every which way as the demon makes his presence known. But the material often lets the characters down, giving them surface insecurities with deep emotion, which the actors struggle to elevate via their performances.
With a biting, innovative, and feminist film like “Jennifer’s Body” (a clear influence on this story) already in existence, it’s a wonder why anyone would create a lesser, more frustrating iteration. Even in the most generic terms, this does not hold water. We half wish the spirit of another movie had this one, which ends infuriatingly with “Animal House” style closing credits for characters who never earn our fellow man, let alone respect. The power of Christ, Satan or any other force compels you to stay away.