The Good Neighbor could also be titled When Scaring Someone Goes Wrong. Built on a familiar premise, the new feature from Kasra Farahani finds a way to blend heart, humor, and mystery in a way that is utterly compelling from beginning to end.
The film follows Ethan (Logan Miller) and Sean (Keri Gilchrist), two mischievous high schoolers hoping to create their first documentary. Ethan’s brilliant idea is to bug the home of his elderly neighbor, Harold Grainey (legendary actor James Caan), and film how he reacts to a series of pranks created to make him believe he is being haunted. It feels innocent enough at first, but when Harold’s reactions do not match the boys’ expectations they begin to question what is actually happening inside the home across the street.
From the start, The Good Neighbor establishes an atmosphere of unpredictability that steadily amplifies over the course of the film. Questions lead to more questions, and each turn is almost immediately followed by another seemingly unrelated twist that keeps you guessing as to where the story will end. Writers Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard slowly unspool the mystery of the man next door from both the beginning and end simultaneously, teasing a finale that grounds the story in reality without revealing the conclusion of the boys’ experiment until the last possible second.
What is most shocking about the film is not the mysterious man next door, but just how much heart and humor makes its way into the story without stalling the constantly rising tension. Miller and Gilchrist have a chemistry that raises the relationship of their characters to something above your average bromance, but there are limits to what they can do with the dialogue they have been given. The film stumbles when trying to establish a clear back story for each, and the same can be said for essentially everyone on screen aside from Harold Grainey. The lack of character development hinders the connection you feel to the people and things happening on screen, but it’s clear everyone involved is passionate about telling the story well.
Caan, who would appear capable of doing whatever he pleases in Hollywood these days, delivers a kind of quiet brilliance in his portrayal of Grainey. The veteran actor embodies Grainey as an emotional, haunted hermit with an axe to grind at first, but soon begins to reveal a much more complicated individual whose past is still very much alive (at least in his mind). I think Caan has less than twenty lines total in the film, and most of them involve threatening a neighbor’s dog, but he makes every grunt and grimace count.
It’s hard to discuss the relevancy of sociopolitical themes of the film without giving away its ending, but suffice to say The Good Neighbor is a film primed to start conversations. Even people who ultimately decide they do not care for the story of this film are destined to discuss the outcome of the third act because it is so closely tied to similar stories of abuse and bad behavior in 2016 that it feels timely without actually commenting on the problems of our times. Pulling off a feat such as that may be the film’s greatest trick of all, but the others are pretty good, too.