A remake of the rather charming and idiosyncratic 2010 German film Vincent Wants to Sea, writer-director Gren Wells’ dramedy The Road Within leans too heavily on certain road movie tropes, but benefits from some strong performances. The largely engaging result is an honest if narratively prescribed depiction of disorders (anxiety, eating and neuropsychiatric, prominently) and the corresponding emotional distance they help create—not to mention how, for adolescents, these disorders add anger and depression to an already near-toxic mix of swirling hormones.
The movie centers on Vincent (Robert Sheehan), a teenager with Tourette’s syndrome who, in the wake of his mother’s death, is sent by his politician father, Robert Rhodes (Robert Patrick), to a behavioral facility. There, Vincent meets with Dr. Mia Rose (Kyra Sedgwick), but is disciplined after an incident in which he snaps and pushes back against a much younger kid teasing him about his condition.
Vincent’s first meetings with his new roommate scarcely go any better. Alex (Dev Patel) has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and is not keen on sharing his living space—especially with someone so voluble, however involuntarily. Marie (Zoë Kravitz), though, a young woman stricken with anorexia, takes to Vincent. Together, they make plans to leave the facility. When Alex stumbles across the duo taking Dr. Rose’s car, the contours of their escape change, adding an extra participant.
The Road Within marks the directorial debut of Wells, who wrote the 2011 fantasy-romance A Little Bit of Heaven, which starred Kate Hudson and Gael García Bernal. If she suffered any great trepidation about making the leap behind the camera, it doesn’t much show: There’s an unfussy confidence and ramshackle ease to her film, and she and cinematographer Christopher Baffa use wide shots to smartly allow for the bickering and interplay of the cast to remain front and center. A lot of first-time directors might opt for a flashier, outwardly stylized aesthetic (perhaps in a ham-fisted attempt to visually “match” the churned-up emotionality of the narrative), but Wells understands this is at heart a delicate character ensemble. A louder telling would undermine its story.
Overall, Wells sticks to her source material fairly closely, though she does change some elements regarding the adults’ stories. A narrative arc concerning Robert and Dr. Rose, whereby they come together to track down the on-the-lam trio and the former is pulled toward a more empathetic understanding of his son’s condition, tracks a bit toward the hackneyed and clichéd, preordained in its shape and mostly unearned. But sometimes convention works because it delivers the emotional catharsis an audience wants—smooth narrative integration be damned—and so a third-act conversation between Robert and Dr. Rose about Vincent’s condition first manifesting itself in childhood offers a heartrending window into the soul of any parent struggling with watching his or her child cope with a malady or difficulty. Robert would gladly take on the disorder himself, if only he could.
What most recommends The Road Within, however, is its casting and performances. Sheehan absorbs Vincent’s tics into his very being (even if they are sometimes used for convenient punctuation within scenes), and Kravitz is wounded without being some fantasy female martyr. Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), meanwhile, has thus far largely made a career playing earnest, sputtering types—mostly successfully, but sometimes a bit less so (see: Chappie). The Road Within gives him the opportunity to play against type, serving as an irritant to Sheehan’s character, and it’s clearly a liberating experience for the actor. For them all, even: The unique dynamic between these three characters, each grappling with discrete pain and isolation, makes for a fairly rewarding journey—even when you know the destination before they ever leave.
Director: Gren Wells
Writer: Gren Wells
Starring: Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Patrick, Kyra Sedgwick
Release Date: April 17, 2015 (New York); April 24, 2015 (Los Angeles)
Brent Simon is a longtime entertainment journalist and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.