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My Best Friend's Exorcism Review: High School Is Hell

EDITORS' RATING: 6.5/10
Pros
  • The cast is great
  • The balance between horror and comedy is good
Cons
  • It takes a bit too long to get to the main event
  • It can start to feel abrupt as it tries to fit many things into its runtime

Teenagers and horror stories were made for each other, and not just because scary movies made for good date night fare. There's something inherently terrifying about the whole endeavor of being a teenager at all, entering a world where everything feels like it carries high stakes and any false move could cost you everything. Throw in the cauldron of boiling emotions that is puberty, and it's a recipe for a world that feels like life and death, even when it isn't.

It's no wonder then, that stories like "My Best Friend's Exorcism" have such broad appeal. Grady Hendrix's horror novel about a group of teenage friends in 1980s South Carolina and the fallout that comes when one of them encounters a demon works as both a fun horror comedy and a solid metaphor for a particular breed of teenage fear. What happens to your life when your best friend, the person you cling to above all others, suddenly seems to be a different person? Can you pull them back from the brink? Should you? What if they take you down with them?

These themes and the reactions they provoke from Hendrix's character move intact into the film version of this story, directed by Damon Thomas from a script by Jenna Lamia. Though the inherent runtime limitations of the film adaptation do cut a few of its juicier story threads short, and the horror-comedy balance sometimes tips a bit too far in either direction, "My Best Friend's Exorcism" works as a thoroughly, consistently entertaining teenage horror journey, one anchored by the compelling, human performances of its core cast.

Pubescent possession

The best friends of the film's title are Abby (Elise Fisher) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller), two teenagers attending the same private school, though they live very different home lives. Gretchen's parents are wealthy, influential, and deeply religious, while Abby's are... pretty much the opposite of that. Despite this, the two girls are bonded like sisters, sharing everything and helping each other through every rough patch and insecurity alongside fellow besties Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee (Cathy Ang).

That all changes one night when the girls decide to take a quiet party just a little too far, and Gretchen wanders into an abandoned building only to come back... well, somehow different. Abby notices almost immediately that her best friend is changing, even if she has no explanation at first for how, or why, and soon the ripple effects of this change reverberate through the lives of all four girls. As friendships unravel and gossip and drama build, it's very clear to Abby that something very bad has happened to Gretchen, and her only hope to save her best friend might be a local Christian motivational speaker (Christopher Lowell) who's in way over his head.

Though the title sort of gives away what's going to happen to Gretchen by the end of the film, "My Best Friend's Exorcism" milks much of its true horror from the slow descent into darkness that follows the fateful party. We see Gretchen's shift from a bright ray of sunshine in Abby's life to something much stranger and more unpredictable throughout several agonizing scenes of teen drama that might be supernatural or might be just garden variety high school meanness. Hendrix's novel is absolutely masterful in depicting these little struggles building up to the big one, and if the film has a fatal flaw, is that there's simply not enough space in the narrative to add the depth and complexity for which the book had plenty of room. Juggling what looks like realistic teenage squabbling with something far more sinister is a huge part of the charm of "My Best Friend's Exorcism," and while Thomas definitely focuses on it, it never quite feels like enough.

Teenage demons

But what the film lacks in real estate to cover all the complex bases of its source material, it makes up for with two things: A great cast and a solid grasp of the tonal balance necessary to pull this story off. Fisher and Miller are very aware of their positions in this film as two young women forced to navigate the most difficult emotional turbulence of their young lives, and both rise to the occasion, Fisher as frustrated, loving best friend and Miller as slow spiraling doomed girl dancing on the brink of her own oblivion. They're able to generate a real sense of love onscreen, and that makes all the difference. Though their stories aren't granted the same prominence, the film's secret weapon might just be infusing Ang and Kanu's characters with just as much humanity and raw teenage life as their co-stars, giving the piece an added depth to its energy.

All four stars, backed up by Lowell in a scene-stealer of a performance, also manage to nail the delicate tone of the story, which has to shift more rapidly between comedy and terror than Hendrix's more slow-burning book. Thomas, best known for his work balancing more delicate tonal notes on things like "Killing Eve," is able to capture the very thin line between hilarious and horrifying in several key scenes, including one moment ripped almost directly from the book with terrifying precision. It's a very hard line to walk, but thanks to his direction and Lamia's clever scripting, the film mostly pulls it off.

As we enter October, "My Best Friend's Exorcism" emerges as a worthy player in the 2022 horror scene, a film that knows where to place its heart and where to place its fear, and a very fun way to kick off the Halloween season.

"My Best Friend's Exorcism" is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.