There’s a difficulty involved in telling a story based at a hospital, rehabilitation center or any other kind of treatment facility because everyone is there for a specific reason. Regardless of ailment or condition, each patient has something specific pinning them to that location. The challenge is to avoid having that one defining characteristic become an all-encompassing force, drowning out any other compelling elements of that individual’s personality or history. “The Road Within,” the directorial debut of “A Little Bit of Heaven” writer Gren Wells, shows that it’s just as difficult to avoid that temptation once those characters are outside that area’s borders.
Taken from the 2010 German film “Vincent Wants to Sea,” this particular adaptation is filtered through the eyes of Vincent Rhodes (Robert Sheehan), a young man struggling with Tourette Syndrome. Forced into a treatment center by his estranged father Robert (Robert Patrick) after the death of his mother, Vincent quickly meets a misfit pair of fellow clinic enrollees: Alex (Dev Patel) and Marie (Zoë Kravitz), each dealing with their own biological challenges, (obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia, respectively).
After a short stay at the center and a handful of talks with the sympathetic maverick head physician Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick), Vincent and Marie hatch an impulsive plan to steal Rose’s car and make their way to the Pacific Ocean to honor Vincent’s late mother. After they make their getaway with Alex in tow, the three set out on a cross-state roadtrip that takes them through the California wilderness on their way to the coast. Both with a vested interest in bringing the young travelers home, Robert and Rose join forces in pursuit, sharing a vehicle along the way.
Of the trio of wayward young characters, Sheehan’s charge is perhaps the most difficult. Amidst the sheer physicality of Vincent’s tics, some of his uncontrollable verbal episodes are forced to double as punchlines. Sheehan never lets either aspect on Vincent’s condition veer into caricature. As his character’s connections weave through the overall narrative, his performance provides a foundation for a film that would otherwise succumb to flimsiness.
Likewise, Alex spends most of the film in a gradual succession of germ-based gags (or verbal quips, including one about Los Angeles being a “cesspool of communicable diseases” that drew a large chuckle from the Angelenos in attendance at the film’s world premiere). But when Patel gets the opportunity to infuse some heart-to-heart conversations with some real pathos, he delivers. As the two characters make progress in how they deal with their conditions, the actors behind them manage to ground those developments so they don’t feel like too much of a magical leap.
The film misses its biggest opportunity for some meaningful emotional shading with Marie. After initiating the car theft and providing an impetus for the whole journey, most of her relationship to the story is to become an object of affection, pity or both. The ethereal, rebellious aura that surrounds her remains largely unchanged and, more importantly, unexamined. Kravitz manages to convey Marie’s defeated outlook on life, but that dour façade can only say so much when there are precious few character strokes to buttress it.
Even though the ocean destination is a fairly direct goal, the central pursuit still has an ambling quality to it. Wells’ script pays attention to the practical logistics of such a trip (stopping for gas, finding a way to obtain food and water, etc.) but there are stretches where those inconveniences seem only to arise out of a need to fill time along the journey.
There’s a distinct camaraderie built through the characters’ shared struggle, but that’s where their reason for interacting ends. Sparse on plot, the film’s volume of conversations yield so few clues as to what make these people more than the sum of their difficulties. Even the dialogue shared by Robert and Rose hardly stray very far from transparent, superficial talks.
But more than a few of those exchanges happen to take place against some majestic backgrounds. Coming from somewhere in Nevada, the gang’s route takes them through Yosemite National Park. While they strive to reach a profound takeaway, almost anything seems majestic in the shadow of Half Dome (not to mention with the strains of Elgar’s “Nimrod” triumphantly echoing in the distance).
In the waning moments of the film, circumstances catch up with one member of the trio. It might be cynical to assume that a story with these characters couldn’t lead a cheery finale, but the eventual sense of optimism at the story’s close ignores the hardships from only hours before. As a result, “The Road Within” eventually works against its good intentions.
“The Road Within” premiered this past week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.