Talk about a sub-sub-genre that won’t die. Less than two years after the soulless vapidity of Scott Speer’s “Endless” (billed on this very website as, ahem, “A Soulless and Vapid ‘Ghost’ Ripoff for Teens”), death-obsessed Gen Z-ers are again gifted with, well, a slightly less soulless and vapid “Ghost” ripoff in the form of Arie Posin’s “The In Between.” Bolstered by the charms of Joey King — fresh off her Netflix trilogy “The Kissing Booth,” sealing her as one of our most formidable streaming romance stars — this maudlin, muddled supernatural love story is never boring, even as it frequently doesn’t make a lick of sense.
The primary issue: “The In Between” seems stuck in between (sorry) two very different stories. There’s the sweet, chemistry-fizzing romance between budding orphan photographer Tessa (King) and trilingual championship rower Skylar (Kyle Allen, soon to be our next He-Man) who meet cute at a screening of “Betty Blue” at their local arthouse (kids these days!) and then try to make a go of it, and what happens after a summer together — cut short when a car accident kills Skylar. Posin flips back and forth between the pre-accident cuteness and the post-accident blues, as Tessa eventually comes to believe that Skylar is reaching out to her from “the in between” (think of it as a waiting room for dead people).
While that same idea has been used many times before on the big screen — most popularly with “Ghost,” in which Patrick Swayze stayed temporarily tethered to the world after his murder because he wanted to warn his lovely girlfriend (Demi Moore) that the killer might be coming for her — its treatment is far more flimsy in “The In Between.” The rules and hows and whys of Skylar’s post-death action are never clear (he can…turn on Tessa’s camera? he can…make every cell phone in a room play the same ringtone?), and even the handy appearance of an afterlife-obsessed medium also on the edge of death (Donna Biscoe) does little to explain much of anything.
Fortunately, most of the film follows the pair’s relationship before the accident, a bond born of their affection for everything from Dante’s “Inferno” to making out in rowboats. In a natty twist on an old formula, it’s Tessa who is the darker of the pair (she’s got family issues, she “hides behind her camera,” the kind of stuff usually reserved for mysterious men), while Skylar is a starry-eyed optimist prone to exclaiming things like “Love never dies!” Oh, boy.
After the pair meet at that “Betty Blue” screening — Skylar moves close to Tessa to translate the film for her, as the print on offer doesn’t have them; now this is romance — and eventually reunite weeks later, they embark on a consuming first love. And then, of course, death. The film opens with both car crash noises and an epigraph from David Foster Wallace, probably the best way to explain its tone and obsessions, which are diverse, bizarre, and not entirely age appropriate.
And while it makes sense that screenwriter Marc Klein (“Serendipity,” “Mirror Mirror”) would want his audience to invest in Tessa and Skylar’s bond before it’s ripped away, the romantic angle is so much more compelling to watch then the reach-beyond-the-grave one that audiences will likely want to snip it entirely. It doesn’t help that Posin seems unsure of how to treat it, opting for both obvious choices (bathing the post-accident sequences in muted colors, having Tessa cut off her hair in a fit of rage) and baffling ones (the musical choices alone are strange, including a score that often seems chosen at total random).
Tessa’s grief is portrayed in ways both believable — it kind of makes her “crazy,” there is zero adherence to the old school “five steps” of it all — and kind of insane: It might have been nice to see how Skylar’s death impacted literally anyone else in his life. We’re told that, in the accident, Tessa’s heart literally ruptured (come on), but the grievous injury won’t stop her from trying to reconnect with Skylar, who always seems to be hovering just out of frame. Eventually, she and her best pal Shannon (played by the always delightful Celeste O’Connor) try out a whole mess of talk-to-the-dead activities, but it’s only Tessa’s camera that can really connect them.
Eventually, Tessa’s search for Skylar turns into an exercise in discovering herself. King is charming enough to gloss over the ickiness of that last twist — really, we should have seen it coming, thanks to all the repeated admonishments that Tessa’s photograph is missing something; that something is apparently death? — but it’s hard to shake in the film’s final moments. Death may be a part of life, but turning tragedy into a learning lesson (and a way to get into art school to boot) dilutes the emotional power that King and Allen fought so hard to find in the grievously mixed messaging of “The In Between.” Caught in between a love story and a ghost story, the film accidentally disproves the very epigraph that opens it — “Every love story is a ghost story” — because this is one that fails to haunt or to hurt.
“The In Between” is now streaming on Paramount+.