Every decade has its prolific child actors. The ones that utterly blow us all away with their emotional capacity and deep relatability, the ones who are too funny for their own good (and funnier than most people older than them), the ones whose tears beget the falling of our own. They’re few and far between—and their rarity makes them all the more special. Once upon a time, there was Jodie Foster. Macaulay Culkin. Anna Paquin became the second-youngest person to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at age 11. In recent years, Jacob Tremblay devastated audiences in Room and Alex R. Hibbert commanded the screen with quiet contemplation and grace in Moonlight. Now, thanks to Shudder’s The Boy Behind the Door, Lonnie Chavis joins those highly regarded ranks.
Writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s film follows 12-year-olds Bobby (Chavis) and Kevin (played in perfect complement by Ezra Dewey), two best friends who get abducted amid a warm-up game of catch before a Little League bout. It opens on the pair begging for their lives as Kevin gets ripped from the car trunk where he and his friend have been held captive. From the first moments of The Boy Behind the Door, you are on the edge of your seat thanks to the high-intensity plot, which wastes absolutely no time kicking in, and the boys’ performances.
Chavis undoubtedly carries the film. Yes, his character is the one who remains free from complete captivity—though he is far from safe—and thus has the most screen time, but there is absolutely more than just visibility at play. He is incredibly skilled, the choices his character makes are nearly visible on his face as he contemplates making them. The last time I recall such a calculated performance was the lunch scene between Anthony Hopkins and Sidse Babett Knudsen in the first season of Westworld. Audiences expect that level of expertise and dedication to the text from a seasoned vet like Hopkins—but it’s an even more pleasant surprise when a newer performer nails such a nuanced role. The part really puts the actor—who was the age of his character at the time of filming—through the wringer, as Bobby takes it upon himself to do what he can to save his friend (yes, the titular boy behind the door). It reminded me of the great Shelley Duvall in The Shining: A sickening spiral of effort and the immense grief of struggling to process a new, traumatized life permeate both performances. I would even go as far as to say the two films would make for an arresting double feature based on the kindred performances alone.
Speaking of the Stanley Kubrick classic, The Boy Behind the Door is proud of its influences and lets you know it. The film harkens back to The Shining during a harrowing scene in which the antagonist (no spoilers on them, you’ll just have to watch) is in hot pursuit of Bobby, who has locked himself in a bathroom. Much like Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, the antagonist bashes the door in with an ax while Bobby watches on horrified. There’s no mistaking the intention here; it is a direct homage to one of the most iconic moments in horror history. The only difference is this time, there are no supernatural elements at play. Our antagonist isn’t under the spell of a hellish hotel or any other external force, which, in my opinion, is far more frightening. However, the scene only works because of the performances. Like Duvall before him, Chavis truly gives himself over to his fear and it is both immensely sad and adrenaline-inducing to see him realize he has been backed into a corner. The overt tribute is placed perfectly in the narrative and is anchored by the blood-rush of terror. The filmmakers even added a second quick Easter egg salute with a wordless “Here’s Johnny” moment with the antagonist. There are no frills, no overt winks to the audience. Just a terrifyingly realistic moment that could absolutely happen within this gut-wrenching scenario—one that also happens to be a famous scene in a famous film.
But the thing The Boy Behind the Door relies on the most is not nostalgia, though if you’re an adult, it may feel that way. The power of friendship is what keeps the heart of this film pumping fresh blood until the very end. There is something so sweet and unbreakable about a true childhood kinship, and that treasured bond is ripe between Bobby and Kevin. They are each other’s rock, and their dialogue and character impulses solidify this important piece of the puzzle that aids them throughout. Their mantra, “friends till the end,” sustains them through their trials and tribulations, and it is beyond clear that their symbiotic connection is their greatest asset. It’s easy, as a viewer, to feel deep catharsis with this element and your mind will wander back to those idyllic childhood moments with whomever was your best bud. But it seems the filmmakers also made it a point to take those feelings a step further: Their story makes you so thankful for those times, amid the uncertainty of life and the insidiousness of humanity, that the feeling will unsettle you. And, like The Boy Behind the Door, it should.
Director: David Charbonier, Justin Powell
Writer: David Charbonier, Justin Powell
Stars: Lonnie Chavis, Ezra Dewey, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Scott Michael Foster, Micah Hauptman
Release Date: July 30, 2021 (Shudder)
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.