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May 4, 2015

'The Road Within' an exceptional delivery

By Abbey White

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"It's a behavioral exercise."

The line - delivered in variations by a handful of characters in Gren Well's directorial debut - is in its own odd way the perfect summation of "The Road Within."

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

Vincent (Robert Sheehan) is a young man with Tourette's Syndrome who, after living with his mother the majority of his life, must now face the world 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 him manage his ticking. There he rooms with Alex (Dev Patel), an obsessive compulsive germaphobe, and makes fast more-than-friends with Marie (Zoë 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 of 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, and 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. Their own trip together can be at times more sour than the 20-somethings they are chasing.

A quintessential road trip movie, "The Road Within," through both transparency of message and subtle development, challenges characters and audience alike to confront the conceptions, as well as expectations, they hold not only about themselves, but 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 flawed, but 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. The camera provides a clear path of development for these characters while simultaneously serving as a visual metaphor for their conditions - inside and out. People are wild, unpredictable and rough. They are also surprising, beautiful and metamorphic.

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 with how its extended metaphors are so shrewdly executed through the affecting dialogue, emotionally driven action and calculated shooting style.

Easiest, however, is not always the greatest or truest illustration of cinematic effort. The at times affronting behavior and language are what initially makes audiences flinch. The emotions and logic behind them, however, are the truly confronting part.

These charaters 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 desperate need for control over things you simply can't is harmful to their health.

As the characters ultimately realize, happiness doesn't stem from a façade 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, generating a strong audience connection. 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 always 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 to their existence. As a result, "The Road Within" offers both an enlightening and normalizing experience.

Through the film's lens, viewers experience their own exercise in behavior. Can they see people beyond their disorders and disabilities and can they see them without looking away? Can they look beyond their conceptions or expectations of who a person is supposed to be and see them for the great many things they can do?

Most 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 experience of the human journey.