The circus train wreck that is The Road Within made me uncomfortable and that’s kind of the point. I laughed. I cringed. I wanted to turn away. And yet I kept watching.
Writer/director/actress Gren Wells (A Little Bit of Heaven) tells the story of a group of mental misfits who sneak out from their rehabilitation center and head towards the ocean. However, despite its self-proclaimed coming of age angle, The Road Within felt more like an existential meditation on mental illness in modern society and our inability to cure or remove the associated discomfort. The three main characters, Vincent, Alex and Marie, battle Tourette’s, OCD, and anorexia, respectively.
I may be slightly biased about the talent in this film. I’ve been in love with Robert Sheehan (Misfits, Moonwalkers) since my Misfit marathons in college, and Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has proved himself a genius actor several lifetimes over since Slumdog Millionaire. The duo are well matched by Zoe Kravitz’s (Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent) choice to embrace the subtly tragic nature of Marie’s inability to relinquish control.
I empathized with the characters not because of some logical turns in the plot, but because of these compelling, deeply human performances.
The film opens at the funeral of a mother who drank herself to death; attended by a father politician whose anger issues and narcissism have gone unchecked to the point that he has emotionally disconnected from his son. Even Amy Winehouse, who battled addiction and depression for years before sadly committing suicide, gets a shout-out in a comedic Tourette’s filled outburst when Vincent (Sheehan) proclaims “Amy Winehouse sucks my cock.”
“The Road Within” is an ensemble circus performed over a backdrop of madness. But the reality of the film is very much akin to the reality of life – mental illness is pervasive and no one has a real clue what to do about it.
I’ve watched some of my closest friends and roommates battle bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety. Personally, I’ve struggled with insomnia. One in ten people in the United States will face an eating disorder in their lifetime, two-thirds of those will be women. Marie’s unresolved anorexia is a reminder of the many ways society has gone off the tracks and hasn’t yet figured out how to recalibrate.
Vincent best sums up this inability to recalibrate, saying “there’s a clown in my head and he shits in between my thoughts and he forces me to do the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate moment. So relaxing is pretty much the one thing I cannot do.”
Relaxing is not something I was able to do watching this film. It was an exercise in empathizing with the more distressed parts of human nature. A very necessary exercise in a world where mental illness is relegated to being the dirty laundry thrown at the bottom of the closet with pills and rehab centers. I shared in the characters’ discomfort at the end of the film, particularly because it didn’t tie things up in a neat bow. Many of the core issues were simply left unresolved.
Despite several cliché and poorly handled plot metaphors as well as an on-the-nose title, The Road Within is an uncomfortable cinematic journey that I didn’t know I needed to take but am glad I did.
It’s a beautiful reminder that we are all battling demons, and while we may never slay the beast, we can look into its beady clown eyes from time to time, and say “Thanks for bearing witness.”