Every so often an independent film comes along that sets the bar a little higher than you might expect for something of its general ilk. If Elsewhere peters out in its final act, with a pretty disappointing and predictable "reveal," it leads up to that act with a remarkably fluent and surprisingly nuanced take on the time honored thriller genre, threatened teen subset nothwithstanding. Basically a little investigative mystery surrounding the disappearance of several small town girls, what Elsewhere ultimately ends up being about is the twisted "social networking" teens (and adults) enter into, not only face to face, but on the internet.
Writer-director Nathan Hope has cut his teeth on more than a decade of episodic television, largely as DP for such series as CSI, and his expertise shows in every frame of Elsewhere. Both the scary segments and the more bucolic rural interstitials are handled with ease and assurance, making the film play much less like a student enterprise than a lot of indy efforts. The thriller genre is full of films with small towns hiding secrets beneath their calm, idyllic exteriors, and Elsewhere plays on that familiarity perfectly. There's a sense of dread and ominous foreshadowing hanging over most of this film from the first, semi-hallucinatory scenes of something untoward happening on a school bus, over which a plaintive voiceover asks, "Have you ever had a secret?"
Hope wisely spends the first third of the film developing the relationship between the film's heroine, Sarah (Anna Kendrick) and her best friend, Jillian (Tania Raymonde). Sarah is the "nice girl," and Jillian is anything but, a tease who has anointed herself "Da Bitch" and who delights in raising the erotic temperatures of both boys and men. It turns out Jillian has posted a sexy profile of herself online that has attracted thousands of responses, including a mysterious "Mr. X" right there in her little hometown of Goshen, a Mr. X with whom she's about to start a relationship. Filling out the cast is another girl who works with Sarah and Jillian, a sad little thing named Darla (Olivia Dawn York), who lives under the thumb of her repressed, Bible thumping father (Jon Gries).
The main mystery develops when Jillian, trapped in an unhappy home life herself (in a sort of scary-funny segment with an obese harridan mother who's a "licensed herbal supplement counselor" on the phone), confesses to Sarah she wants to run away. Jillian then pretty much ups and vanishes, but not before she sends Sarah a haunting and brief video that looks like she's being chased and probably killed on a school bus. Sarah of course suspects something's up, but doesn't really know how to go about solving the mystery, especially since Jillian had threatened the town's main policeman, who it turns out was one of her many online admirers.
Where Elsewhere excels is in the perfectly written and played relationships between all the teens. While Sarah is the focus, and the "normal" one, we get everything from jocks to stoners to computer dweebs who enter her universe, and Jillian and Darla make for an appealingly diverse social system in and of themselves. Kendrick and Raymonde portray their characters beautifully and effortlessly. Kendrick has a solid assurance about her mixed with just the right hint of vulnerability and, at times, sullenness, that bring Sarah completely alive. Raymonde is incredible as Jillian in the few scenes she's in, evoking a sort of iconic "lost girl' (or should that be grrrl?) whose pain is masked beneath a barrage of sarcasm and provocative sexiness. York is also quite brilliant showing the repressed "Carrie"-esque character that Darla is (albeit without the pyrotechnics).
Elsewhere is considerably less successful in its mystery element. We have a fair number of suspects, from the obvious (the not too subtly named Mr. Tod, Darla's father) to the less likely (hence more probable if you're a fan of twist endings) like Sarah's computer dweeb helper Jasper (Chuck Carter). Part of the fun of the Scream films, which Elsewhere may remind some viewers of in passing, was the out of left field reveals that nonetheless satisfied logically. By the time the ultimate killer is shown, it's a major anticlimax. In fact, I was expecting another twist, which I had "figured out" and just knew was coming in the final few minutes of the film, but, alas, it never arrived. So I guess that in and of itself is something of a twist, in a negative sort of way. Unfortunately, there are just one too many clichés in the final third of the film, with a few too many lapses in logic (why in heaven's name doesn't Sarah just turn off the ringer of her cell phone when it keeps giving away her location, for example?) to sustain the momentum the film develops in its early going.
Hope is obviously a writer-director to keep an eye on. This is an impeccably shot and framed film, with a fine eye for detail and especially performance. With a little more effort made toward crafting a surprising, yet logical, conclusion to the mystery, Elsewhere really would have been at the top of my list of recent independent films. As it is, it's a really interesting, somewhat flawed, feature that exploits its director's keen eye while giving its mostly young cast some fun mini-star turns.
Trivia note: Though their names may not immediately jump out to some viewers, there's an interesting Lost connection here. Gries, playing Mr. Tod, portrays Roger Linus in the series, and Tania Raymonde, here portraying Jillian, was the ill-fated Alex, Ben Linus' kind-of daughter.