Samantha (Trin Miller) has never known her real family. Raised by foster guardians (referred to only as "the Harrises") who refuse to tell her about her biological parents, Sam doesn't even know where to start looking until she inherits a house from a late aunt. Eager to learn a little something about her heritage, she gathers up her friends Caitlin (Andi Norris), Roman (Josh Truax), and Mark (Brandon Anthony) for a road trip to the middle of nowhere. Upon arriving, they're greeted by a reclusive caretaker named Eric (D'Angelo Midili), who says he remembers Sam from when they were kids. At first, Sam is happy to try and find out more about the family she never knew, but interpersonal tension and a sense of foreboding hang over Sader Ridge.
The Invoking illustrates and attempts to solve a paradox for the first-time feature filmmaker. I have no idea how director Jeremy Berg and co-writer John Portanova feel about their screenplay, but a character being tormented by repressed memories in a childhood home is ground that has been thoroughly covered by the genre. On the other hand, The Invoking also deftly maneuvers itself around a laundry list of hallmarks that define amateur filmmaking, which suggests that maybe trying to tell a familiar story as skillfully as possible is wiser than dreaming up a film that can't be technically or financially achieved.
For one, The Invoking has a pretty strong cast. All five of the film's leads succeed where the casts of so many independent productions fail: believable old-acquaintances banter. The script never asks any of them to choke out a mouthful of overly complicated exposition or overwrought, overwritten "witty" one-liners, and none of the performers try too hard to inhabit a "type" by cranking up recognizable tics or get show-offy. The role of Caitlin, in particular, could be really obnoxious (the loud, sarcastic, outgoing girl with a fondness for blunt humor), but Norris exerts just the right amount of enthusiasm. Things get a little shaky for Anthony as the film progresses, but even he stops well short of embarrassing himself.
The Invoking mostly avoids looking like a film that was shot in someone's house over the course of a few weeks. The house itself is a little pedestrian for the enthusiastic way the characters describe it, but Berg mostly uses the woods as his production design, capturing some atmospheric shots of the characters out on the ridge, and never inserting any unnecessary cinematography tricks that distract from the story. Not to sound like I'm praising the movie for the bare minimum here, but it's kind of embarrassing how many DTV pictures don't look like someone took the time to light the sets properly or decisively frame a shot a certain way, but the effort here is measured and deliberate, working with the story and setting to reduce the limitations of the production without feeling like the movie is actively trying to hide them.
That said, although the film's best quality is its awareness of what can and can't be accomplished, Berg and Portanova ought to have spent a little more time searching for a unique element to the particular brand of psychological terror they're offering. Although Berg uses one device as part of Sam's torment (no spoilers, but it's the area in which Anthony struggles), the film could use more of Sam's specific emotional struggle. There's something waiting to be articulated in her journey that the film never quite achieves, possibly because it ends up focusing on all the characters equally. By raising the pitch of her internal torment, it would help give the ending more of a build (Berg and editor Autumn Mason set a deliberate pace that works well for the beginning but mutes the end).
All things considered, The Invoking is a strong feature debut. Its measured nature is a quality that more independent feature films should strive for, taking stock of the resources available to the production before leaping off the deep end. Some will say it's better to swing for the fences and miss, but those people probably don't see as many low-budget films as I do. The Invoking isn't a home run, but it's a solid line drive right up the middle that conveys more about the talent of those involved than a hundred wildly ambitious failures.