‘The Road Within’ an exceptional journey

“It’s a behavioral exercise.”

The line – delivered in variations by a handful of characters in Gren Well’s directorial debut – is the perfect summation of “The Road Within.”

A classically heart-warming — albeit jarring — coming of age adventure, this 100-minute film explores a trio of twenty-somethings on their difficult journeys of self-awareness and acceptance.

Vincent (Robert Sheehan) is a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome. After living with his mother the majority of his life, Vincent must now face the world  alone in the wake of her untimely death.

Left in the care of his preoccupied and largely dissociated father (Robert Patrick), Vincent is forced into a facility run by Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick) to help manage his ticking. There he rooms with Alex (Dev Patel), an obsessive compulsive germaphobe. He also makes fast more-than-friends with Marie (Zoe Kravitz), a young woman suffering from anorexia.

It isn’t long after his arrival that Marie convinces Vincent to break out, by way of lifting the good doctor’s car and “kidnapping” Alex. The move is only the first in a series of hilarious and catastrophic trip hijinks.

The three make their way across the country to the coast of California in an effort to help Vincent keep one last promise to his mother. The trip isn’t without incident, however, as the trio hits more than a few potholes along the way.

Shortely after they’ve left, Rose realizes what’s happened and calls on Vincent’s father to help her track them down. Though both are adults, their own journey together can be at times more sour  and immature than the 20-somethings they are chasing.

A quintessential road trip movie, “The Road Within,” through transparency of message and subtle development, challenges characters and audience alike to confront the conceptions, as well as expectations, we hold not only about ourselves and each other.

An indie at its core, the film offers viewers what they’d expect from the genre. Sequences of raw, comedic and moving human connections between complex characters are interspersed with sweeping shots of the country’s wondrous and abrasive landscape.

The characters’ journeys are complicated not only by the literal, but personal roadblocks they endure.

It is perhaps easiest to remember “The Road Within” for its many surface lessons: we are more than what makes us different, growing up is the hardest to do, life is best lived when we don’t live it alone. Especially considering how its extended metaphors are so shrewdly executed through the dialogue, action and shooting style.

Easiest, however, is not always the truest illustration of cinematic effort. The film’s affronting behavior and language is what initially makes audiences flinch. The emotions and logic behind them, however, are the truly provocative parts.

These people operate with a desperate need for control – of their ticks, germs, hunger and even their children with the hope that it will somehow bring happiness. But that desperation to control what  you simply can’t is harmful to their health.

As the story ultimately shows us, happiness doesn’t stem from a facade of control, but from a person’s ability to adapt and survive without it.

Sheehan delivers, in all manners of speaking, a truly spot-on and affecting performance as Vincent, while Kravitz’s command of Marie’s personality allows her character to become more than her body. Patel rounds the cast with his excellent comedic timing and solid foil arc.

While the film’s journey for Sedgwick and Patrick can feel more contrived, Wells handles her main trio with sincerity and attention. This, like the rest of “The Road Within,” is only a reminder that the story’s biggest journey was never really about Rose, Vincent’s father or even the audience’s relationship to the characters. It was about the journey of those three kids.

It’s easy to co-opt Vincent, Marie or Alex’s experience when the metaphor glove fits. And while compassion and connection are clearly at the heart of this film, Wells’ characters demand a far less patronizing approach. As a result, “The Road Within” provides viewers with an enlightening and normalizing experience.

Through the film’s lens, we experience our own exercise in behavior. Can we look beyond our conceptions or expectations of who a person is supposed to be and see them for the great many things they already are?

More importantly, can our trio be more than a story of the inspirationally disadvantaged?

“The Road Within” is not just a formulaic road trip movie. The film is a well-executed turn on tradition – a complicated, sometimes painful, but ultimately astounding story about the human journey.

This review first appeared in the May 4, 2015 issue of The Cleveland Stater

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