Movie review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ gets lost
Directed By M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Rated PG-13, Horror, Comedy, 94 minutes
As a child I often found old people frightening. Something didn’t seem right about looking decayed, yet smelling like baby powder. Therefore, the notion that youngsters aren’t safe while visiting their grandparents was an idea ready to feed off my reservoir of childhood fears. Then, during five-minute setup of “The Visit,” I realized what the famous M. Night Shyamalan twist would be. This realization wasn’t necessarily the film’s death knell, since the premise still presented other opportunities.
Neither 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) nor her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have ever met their grandparents, so their mom’s vague statements aside, the kids have no idea what their grands are like, but they are motivated, following abandonment by their father, to cultivate family connections.
Equipped with a pair of video cameras and a laptop computer, Becca is an aspiring filmmaker. She plans a documentary of their weeklong visit to the grandparent’s isolated farm and is vaguely hopeful her movie will heal old wounds between the grands and her mother, who hasn’t spoken to them since she ran off to marry at 17. Becca aspires to produce a film of cinematic quality, tossing around terms such as organic plotting and mis-en-scene. Though relegated to shooting B-roll, Tyler nurses his own talent as an aspiring rap performer and songwriter.
The kids are greeted by an elderly couple who might have stepped out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” portrait. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) is tall and waif-like, wearing her long gray hair in a bun and a quizzical look on her face. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) matches her height and presents a severe look. Preoccupied with preparing meals and treats in her large farmhouse kitchen, Nana shows Becca little flavor-enhancing tricks like toasting chopped walnuts until they nearly burn before adding them to her cookies.
Pop Pop explains there’s dangerous mold in the basement, and it’s best if the kids remain in their room after everyone’s 9:30 p.m. bedtime. The first night they open the door to investigate strange noises and see Nana naked and frantically scratching at the walls.
If that wasn’t enough, during daylight hours, the grands demonstrate other peculiar behaviors. On their third daily Skype call to mom (credibly played in shades of raw emotion by Kathryn Hahn), Tyler confesses he’s scared of the grandparents. Both Becca and Mom pooh-pooh this notion, their opinions tempered by Pop Pop’s explanation of Nana’s nighttime dementia and Tyler’s tendency toward phobic fears.
Shyamalan’s script hovers somewhere between horror and comedy, and for the first two-thirds of the film, it’s a winning formula. But, as he attempts to ramp up a growing sense of unease, Shyamalan loses his balance, creating scenarios that leave us laughing at him as frequently as with him. “The Visit” isn’t entirely unsuccessful, especially during creative moments, such as a tense family game of Yahtzee that overlays several hidden agendas.
Rated PG-13, I believe “The Visit” is sufficiently sophisticated to frighten kids 14 and under, but an older audience will perhaps ask questions causing the story to break down long before the revelation meant to be shocking. Bolstered by an excellent cast and atmospheric set design, the film exhibits a lived-in, familiar feeling arising from the dynamics between its likeable teen siblings. While “The Visit” ultimately misses its mark, its miss comes near enough to the target that we want to forgive its missteps.
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