The kids aren't alright.
While Meadowoods opens with a quote from historian James Anthony Froude about man's general disdain for his fellow creatures, I believe there is a far sneakier message about the dangers of groupthink lurking beneath the film's surface. Director Scott Phillips, running with a screenplay by Anna Siri, uses his feature-length debut to present a vision of psychological horror that builds upon the fear of the anonymous before literally placing it in our back yards.
Travis (Connor Thorp), Steph (Michele Roe) and Ryan (Michael Downey) are bored. They attend college in a small town where nothing much ever happens. Since two of them are sociopaths and the third blindly follows directions, it's a given that how they choose to pass their time will wildly differ from anything that you or I would do. Case in point, they decide to murder someone. Forgoing the path of quick violence they elect to approach this as a cold and clinical exercise in slow torture. Living as they do in the media age, they even film the whole enterprise to both commemorate their actions and to provide a horrifying time capsule to the victim's family many years after the fact.
After forming a pact which states that any disobedience by the group members is punishable by death, they get down to the important business of selecting an innocent person to terrorize. Once they come to the sickening consensus that a woman would be easier to subdue and would provide more satisfying screams, they pick a random student, Kayla (Ila Schactler), who goes to their school. Under the pretense of interviewing people for a project on student life, Ryan manages to find some time to talk with Kayla, who is far too open and trusting for her own good. Simultaneously the group devises a torture chamber consisting of a box outfitted with cameras and microphones which can be buried with Kayla inside. The only flaw in the group's plan is a human one. As Ryan's conscience awakens, he finds himself wanting to deviate from the murderous scheme. The film's climax brings the simmering tension within the group to a full boil with Kayla's life hanging in the balance.
Looking past the shocking premise, Meadowoods has some interesting things to say about our capacity for violence and how individuals can rationalize their actions when operating on auto-pilot as a group. The film suggests that while Travis, Steph and Ryan's actions may be unthinkable, they are still the kids next door. They look perfectly normal and this gives them an anonymity which helps them pass through society undetected. Before I fall into the trap of making blanket statements about the teenagers, let me draw a distinction between members of the group because they do have an unusual dynamic. For all intents and purposes, Travis is the leader of the trio. He is impulsive, brash and like most leaders, incredibly charismatic. He wants to kill for the rush of it. Steph is equally monstrous but in an entirely different way. She is the sullen, quiet and nihilistic one who doesn't care how the murder turns out as long as she gets a measure of infamy. Watching her frown her way through the film only to have her come alive during Kayla's climactic torture is both unnerving and revealing. Ryan's greatest fault is that he doesn't know how to stand up for himself. Parental neglect has left him confused and anti-social. This also leaves him vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a dominant personality like Travis.
When the trio first starts planning the murder, viewing it with detachment allows them to approach it in an impersonal manner. There are instances when their blasť attitude takes the film into darkly comical territory. An example of this can be seen when they are trying to decide upon the method of murder. They actually go to the local video rental store in order to peruse the films while comparing notes on which ones had the most effective murder techniques. One can't help but suppress a smile as they gush about the films they love before settling on Kill Bill Vol. 2 for its desert burial scene. As proof of Phillips' deft handling of the material, contrast this with the interview between Ryan and Kayla. In a story of sub-human actions being committed by disturbingly sane individuals, Kayla provides the only moments of pure humanity. She comes across as a mature girl with regular fears and anxieties. When Ryan starts his interview with her, he clearly has an agenda but her honesty and simple innocence has a disarming effect on him. By the end of it, we can tell that Ryan has been positively impacted. This just makes his acknowledgement that he may be too weak to stop her from being hurt, that much more heartbreaking.
Considering the documentary feel of Meadowoods, it would be all too easy for a single bad performance to strike a wrong note and shatter the reality that Phillips is trying to present. Fortunately all the core performers are up to the challenge and are utterly believable as the characters they inhabit. Thorp and Roe give unsettling performances as Travis and Steph. Downey is stuck off-screen for the most part since he is the group's camera operator. However, he does manage to make his presence felt during Kayla's interview with his voice alone. The crowning performance of the film belongs to Schactler as Kayla. There isn't a hint of artifice about her. While it's easy to see why Ryan would change for her, it makes her treatment during the climax hard to watch. There is a 4 minute long segment where the screen goes dark but we can hear Kayla pleading for her freedom and crying for help. This segment is proof positive that an oppressive atmosphere goes a long way towards conveying horror when gore is nowhere to be found.
My only real quibble with Meadowoods is a fairly major one. We are expected to believe that this trio of teenagers is going to commit a murder for reasons ranging from boredom to a desire for infamy. While I can stomach that, what I don't buy is the group itself. I can see absolutely no reason why these three individuals would be friends. Travis displays veiled misogyny towards Steph while he openly abuses Ryan. Steph in turn seems to not like anyone at all while Ryan, for all his weakness, repeatedly takes offence with what Travis and Steph are trying to do. Phillips and Siri would have us think that we are watching a friendship slowly come apart at the seams while I'm finding it hard to believe that there was ever anything there in the first place. To me, this damages the group's dynamic, making everything that springs from it harder to swallow. To boot, we are given no real background information on Travis or Steph's characters which would humanize them as much as Ryan's character. The convincing performances from the leads go a long way towards patching these holes but the film still doesn't hold water.