'The Boy Behind the Door': Film Review | AFI 2020

The Boy Behind the Door
Courtesy of Whitewater Films
Relentlessly intense.

David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s debut feature is an unsettling indie thriller showcasing the talents of two striking young actors.

In The Boy Behind the Door, a gripping twist on the home-invasion thriller, first-time feature directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell plunge two tween boys into escalating peril, relentlessly intensifying a cascading series of lethal threats over the film’s excruciating runtime.

By subjecting their two young protagonists to increasingly horrifying hazards that include random abduction and violent sexual assault, the filmmakers induce a very specific type of tension that’s both alarming and profoundly unsettling. It’s a delicate and memorably successful balancing act that effectively contextualizes some deliberately challenging material.

Assaulted and kidnapped by a stranger, 12-year-old best friends Kevin (Ezra Dewey, Criminal Minds) and Bobby (Lonnie Chavis, The Water Man) end up bound and gagged in the trunk of their abductor’s car. Before they can attempt an escape, their assailant grabs Kevin, leaving Bobby behind in the dark enclosure where he struggles out of his restraints and eventually kicks open the trunk lid, emerging in a dimly lit garage. Bobby slips through the door and finds himself outside a hulking home sprawling across an isolated property, but Kevin is nowhere in sight. Making his way down the driveway, he’s confident that he can escape unseen, but his friend’s cries of anguish echoing from inside the huge house bring him up short.

This initial setup is notable for its lack of almost any backstory. Other than their friendship and shared enthusiasm for baseball, little is revealed about the boys’ personal lives or social circumstances. However, the filmmakers’ decision to pair African American actor Chavis with Dewey, who is Filipino and Caucasian, clearly conveys their determination to feature diverse casting while reinterpreting familiar suspense genre characteristics.

Resolving to rescue Kevin, Bobby breaks into the basement and begins cautiously searching each floor for his imprisoned friend. Within barely ten minutes, an agonizingly tense premise emerges, as sinuous camera movements track Bobby’s search, transforming the cavernous, shadowy house into an ominously sinister character. The real threat, though, comes from a mysterious man (Micah Hauptman) who corners Bobby in the kitchen, forcing him to draw on resources of bravery he never knew he had. The return of homeowner Mrs. Burton (Kristin Bauer van Straten) further escalates the terror, as the boys fight for survival while attempting a desperate escape.

Powell and Charbonier rarely let up the tension, forcing Bobby into one tight scrape after another as he seeks to avoid repeated attacks and extract Kevin from his dire circumstances. Leaning on visual and thematic elements familiar from classics like The Shining and The Silence of the Lambs, the filmmakers keep the focus on the terror the boys endure, disclosing little about their tormentors and conveying the horrific assault on Kevin by implication, rather than explicitly.

Despite the harrowing plot, the young actors go all-in, committing to strikingly authentic performances more common among professionals with decades more experience. Chavis rewards with consistently emotive responses to threatening situations that reinforce Bobby’s steadfast devotion to his best friend, rarely wavering from his determination to safely extricate them both from danger. Although confined to a smaller role, Dewey persuasively conveys Kevin’s shocking trauma, as well as his desire to match Bobby’s courage.

With The Boy Behind the Door, Charbonier and Powell have crafted more than the proverbial calling-card first feature, instead confronting some persistently dark material with distinct skill and empathy, amplifying their commitment to the values of compassion and perseverance. It’s a sometimes grim journey that unflinchingly recognizes the more shocking inclinations of human nature, but refuses to give in to them.

Production companies: Whitewater Films, Kandoo Films, Kinogo Pictures
Cast: Lonnie Chavis, Ezra Dewey, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Scott Michael Foster, Micah Hauptman
Directors-screenwriters: David Charbonier, Justin Powell
Producers: Rick Rosenthal, Jim Hart, Ryan Scaringe, John Hermann, Ryan Lewis
Executive producers: Bert Kern, Nick Morton, Howard Barish
Director of photography: Julian Amaru Estrada
Production designer: Ryan Brett Puckett
Costume designer: Brionna Rowe
Editor: Stephen Boyer
Music: Anton Sanko
Casting director: Amy Lippens
Venue: AFI Fest (New Auteurs)

88 minutes