MOVIE: THE VISIT
STARRING: OLIVIA DEJONGE; ED OXENBOULD; KATHRYN HAHN; DEANNA DUNAGAN; PETER MCROBBIE
DIRECTED BY: M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 Stars (Out of 4)
The narrative that follows The Visit, the newest film from director M. Night Shyamalan, will be more about how the man who skyrocketed to directorial stardom with movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs has turned in his strongest effort since his four-film losing streak, which included Razzie-winning efforts The Last Airbender and the “gun-for-hire” Will Smith family flop After Earth. The Visit is a return to good form, filled with Shyamalan’s passion for creepy settings, mixed with a surprising comedic flair, and his auteur themes of how families, specifically children, deal with loss. It is a promising outcome from a director that many, including yours truly, had lost all faith in. The Visit is a smart creep fest that points a finger at some of our right and wrong perceptions of the elderly, in a wickedly fun style.
In many ways, Shyamalan is starting back at square one. The Visit is shot in a documentary footage style (think Cloverfield), and has a relatively unknown cast. This is typical for a first-time director trying to make a name for himself with the little budget he has, not a two-time Oscar nominee. Yet, with the rut Shyamalan hit after 2004's The Village (which some loved and some hated), one could understand if this was the 45-year old auteur's attempt at a fresh start.
We meet Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a 15-year old who aspires to shoot her own documentary, and her Mos Def-wannabe, rapping brother, Tyler (played with hilarious candor by Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day actor Ed Oxenbould). When their mother (Kathryn Hahn, being underused again) tells the kids about when she left home in her teenage years to be with their now-absent father, it damaged her relationship with her parents. Becca sees this as a chance to repair that relationship and deal with her and Tyler's issues about their father. Mom goes away on a cruise with her new boyfriend for a week, while the kids visit the grandparents in the Pennsylvania country for the first time.
The kids arrive by train to a happy greeting by the grandparents, who tell the kids to call them Nana (Deanna Dunagan, who steals the show) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). They are a warm and welcoming pair of elderly folk, Nana wearing her gray, knitted sweaters and Pop Pop in the classic “Home Improvement” flannel shirts. Becca films the family interactions and interviews the two grandparents about the argument that put the wedge between them and their mother. With minimal cellphone service, they must adapt to the house “rules” of helping clean up and going to bed at 9:30. As the days go on, the kids begin to see that Nana and Pop Pop have some odd mannerisms. Given a glimpse of what our elderly futures might look like, Tyler discovers (in a gross-out scene) that Pop Pop deals with incontinence, and they are told that Nana has a form of dementia where she roams the halls at night. It seems like the normal progression of life for people of their age … or is it something else? There may be another, stranger, reason behind this behavior.
What Shyamalan does well is a unique combination of building on the audience’s anticipation of the scare and revealing the characters in embarrassing, harmless situations, until they are not so harmless anymore. Moments such as a friendly game of hide and seek between the kids under the back porch turns into a haunting situation as a figure chases after them. (SPOILER) The person is revealed to be Nana, who accidentally has her skirt tucked into her underpants, exposing her butt cheek. It is funny, yet crazy, because the audience is genuinely creeped out by the entire interaction, and then they’re laughing.
Like most of these docu-footage films, it has its limitations of reality. I can never really believe that characters choose to pick the camera up in situations of danger. Yet, the bright-faced DeJonge and Oxenbould charm us without annoyance, the intensity keeps us psychologically guessing, and the classic Shyamalan “twist” pays off even if you see it coming. Hopefully, it is a sign of even better Shyamalan films to come, because I am a fan of The Visit.