Road trip movies are often times the most freeing. There’s something about them that is automatically feel-good, even while there’s angst to be had and hurdles to jump over. The only difficult part, however, is trying to make light of serious issues. David O. Russell was able to do that to a certain degree in Silver Linings Playbook, and succeeded where others may have not. On the other hand, it can be argued that Playbook, just as an example, is too much of a simplification of mental illnesses and this is exactly what writer/director Gren Wells struggles with in The Road Within while still being able to deliver a feel-good film that’s heartwarming in many respects.
Vincent (Robert Sheehan) has just finished attending his mother’s funeral. Living with Tourette’s Syndrome hasn’t been easy and outside of just the tics that his body involuntarily produces, he also suffers from a rarer form, one in which has him cursing or using vulgar language at inappropriate times. His mayor-elect father Robert (Robert Patrick), embarrassed by his son, has him checked into an experimental treatment clinic run by Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick).
There, Vincent shares a room with Alex (Dev Patel), who suffers from extreme obsessive compulsive disorder to the point where he wears latex gloves and freaks out if someone walks into his room with shoes on. Vincent also befriends Marie (Zoë Kravitz), a young woman suffering from anorexia. Wanting to deliver his deceased mother’s ashes to the ocean, the three unlikely friends embark on a road trip together (after stealing Dr. Rose’s car, that is) and discover many things about themselves and each other on their journey there.
The Road Within doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece waiting to happen. This is obvious after the first couple of scenes of the film. Nor is it strictly about mental disorders so much as it is about acceptance, the disorders being a means to get a point across. Some may argue that the disorders portrayed in the film are done so in an insensitive manner because they’re not taken as seriously as they should be. I believe that Wells could have gone more in depth in regards to the characters’ disorders, but in also trying to make the film more heartwarming and less angst-ridden, Wells abandons the notion of giving the audience more. A slight which can ultimately be forgiven.
However, that’s not to say that this is a reason the film is bad, because it isn’t. The Road Within sets out to accomplish its goal, with intriguing and mostly well developed characters. They’re all imperfect in one way or another. Most striking is Robert Patrick’s character, who is a father ashamed of and embarrassed by his son. Many would shake their head at his actions, but Wells writes him to be more real and human than the all-accepting ideal kind of parent who in reality doesn’t exist.
The lead cast (Sheehan, Patel, and Kravitz) give full-bodied performances. Without their rich character nuances and portrayals, the film would have been entirely lacking. Through Sheehan, Patel, and Kravitz, we see characters struggling to come to terms with themselves as people as well as their disorders and lives. They each play at the nuances of their characters and use all the subtlety to emerge as three-dimensional characters. The trio have great chemistry and their budding friendship is believable and becomes most welcome midway through after all the kinks of their differing personalities have been sorted. Sometimes, certain character actions seem rash or contrived and creates more drama than is particularly necessary, but at least the actors rise to their roles enormously well and perhaps make the film more enjoyable.
For her first feature film debut, director Gren Wells does a solid job. Sometimes the adventure overshadows the different problems occurring throughout the film, but Wells’s script somehow manages to shift enough to make a point about acceptance and finding peace with being who you are, even if that person isn’t always what society wants or is willing to accept (parents and even oneself being no exception). The Road Within is ultimately feel-good, the characters certainly diverse in their personalities as well as their disorders, and the underlying message isn’t too heavy-handed. Yes, there’s a happy ending, but Wells still manages to give seriousness to the disorders and the characters’ situations while making it a typical road-trip-finding-yourself kind of film.