From “Scent of a Woman” to “Dancer in the Dark,” blind characters onscreen have rarely been played by the visually impaired. While recent films like “CODA” and “Sound of Metal” have shown deaf characters with nuance and authentic casting, blindness has not been afforded the same progress. Especially in genre fare, blindness is often used to indicate a certain grisly callousness (see: the “Don’t Breathe” films), or a sagely omniscience (like Master Aemon in “Game of Thrones,” played by blind actor Peter Vaughan). Even though authentic casting undoubtedly creates the best characters, like S. Robert Morgan as Omar’s trusted advisor Butchie on “The Wire,” as with all things progress, Hollywood has taken awhile to catch on.
The tense home invasion thriller “See for Me,” from genre mainstay IFC Midnight, offers a refreshing twist on the blind protagonist: an apathetic young woman with attitude and cunning to spare. Played by visually impaired actor Skylar Davenport (who is non-binary and playing cisgender), Sophie is a former competitive skier who has turned to house sitting for the uber wealthy since losing her vision. Dejected but never self-pitying, she rebuffs her mother’s concerns about her mysterious cash deposits with the disdain of a surly teenager. Determined to assert her independence, Sophie relies on video calls with a friend to tour her temporary new digs, a spacious modern compound full of valuable art and expensive wine. When she pockets a particularly nice bottle, her friend suddenly grows a conscience and bows out of the lucrative hustle.
When she gets locked out on her cigarette break she resorts to trying “See for Me,” a service that connects seeing people with the visually impaired. After hanging up on an overly saccharine operator, she gets matched with the down to earth Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who quickly disarms Sophie’s short temper from her sweet gaming console. Sensing a kindred spirit, Sophie saves Kelly’s contact in the app — and just in time.
From watchful exterior shots of the cold mansion in desolate snowy woods, it’s clear something is afoot. In director Randall Okita’s vision of the eerily serene surroundings, no detail is wasted in building the tension. The way Sophie’s backlit silhouette creeps along the basement hallway or a still shot lingers on the leafy greenhouse suggests a less peaceful return to these settings looms. As Sophie runs her hands along every smooth designer surface, something as simple as a slate floor or a home security alarm panel takes on added meaning. Designed within an inch of its life, suddenly this architectural marvel feels hollow, the pristine trappings of excessive wealth becoming cold and foreboding.
When a team of three men break in, easily dispensing with the pesky home alarm system that caused such a headache, Sophie immediately calls Kelly. Not just useful for her snark, it turns out Kelly is a former infantry soldier who spends her down time playing “Call of Duty.” With the video call patched through to her gaming console, she has a perfect vantage point to guide Sophie through the perilous home invasion. Not only smart but morally shiftable, Sophie isn’t one to be underestimated. Her porous allegiances keep things interesting, providing enough shifts in momentum to keep everyone — audience and ruthless robbers alike — on their toes.
Shot in Canada with a mostly Canadian cast and crew, “See for Me” benefits from a cast of experienced actors who may not be recognizable to most. As the lead and focal point, Davenport anchors the action with their instinctual performance, playing Sophie with a pointed ferocity that is clearly masking deep pain. The motley crew of burglars is an eclectic mix of brutish goon squad and smooth talkers. Seasoned “Sons of Anarchy” character actor Kim Coates is a delightful late addition as criminal mastermind Rico; he squeezes every drop out of a charming voice performance with his Joe Pesci-drawl. When he finally appears onscreen, it’s as if we know him already.
“See for Me” wastes no frame in its brisk 92 minute running time, it’s a tightly-wound thriller propelled by enough turns that you won’t want to miss a beat. Led by an unlikely hero in acerbic Sophie, it’s sure to satisfy shrewd genre audiences who prefer their suspense without turning physical disability into a punchline. This time, she’s doing the punching.
“See for Me” is now in in select theaters and various VOD platforms through IFC Midnight.