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We Need To Do Something Review: Terror On The Tiles

Whether it's intentional or not, the horror genre always reflects the anxieties and fears of the current moment. It might be something the filmmakers deliberately mine, something we as viewers find within the darkest parts of ourselves, or a combination of both, but the right horror film can somehow both entertain you and cut right to the heart of the existential dread that lives in your very soul on the exact day you watch it.

With all that in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that "We Need to Do Something" was filmed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it also shouldn't be surprising that the film's tremendous sense of familial tension and isolation might shake to your core if you've spent the last 18 months looking at the same four walls. With just five major characters and most of its runtime contained within a single room in a storm-battered house, it's easy to see the parallels. Look closer, though, and "We Need to Do Something" is a film about much more than the horrors of isolation and lockdown, though it certainly mines those ideas for everything they're worth. With a stripped-down, claustrophobic atmosphere, a phenomenal cast, and a filmmaking team that knows how to extract maximum effect from minimalist surroundings, "We Need to Do Something" has emerged as one of the most potent new horror films of 2021, one that will leave you squirming to get out of your house, if only to make sure the outside world is still there.

Big scares in a small room

Directed by Sean King O'Grady and written by Max Booth III (who also wrote the novella on which the film is based), "We Need to Do Something" begins with an infectious combination of the mundane and the menacing through the simple depiction of a family of four hunkering down in their bathroom to wait out a coming storm. Everyone's on edge for their own reasons as they close the door and settle in on the tile floor. Father Robert (Pat Healy) and mother Melissa (Vinessa Shaw) are seemingly still mid-argument about something they couldn't settle before the storm sirens started going off, while youngest child Bobby (John James Cronin) is more concerned about just how big and spectacular the oncoming storm might get. Then there's teenage daughter Melissa (Sierra McCormick), who's far more preoccupied with the well-being of her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) than she is with anything having to do with her actual family.

Then the storm sets in, and the family find themselves dealing with much more than internal tension. With a massive tree suddenly blocking the bathroom door, they can't get out, and they can't seem to find a way to call for help either. With no one to turn to but each other, each member of the family begins to break down in their own way, even as the world outside the bathroom might hold something far darker than the aftermath of a storm, something Melissa is increasingly convinced she might have inadvertently summoned...

That's a lot to layer into the opening act of the film, and what's apparent right away is how patient and measured O'Grady is in his pacing. There's something very methodical to this film's opening minutes, to the ways in which O'Grady's choices and Booth's scripting set up the pieces like they're all part of some demented cosmic chessboard. It begins with a tantalizing, incredibly brief glimpse of the world beyond the bathroom walls, then progresses to layering in the internal tension between the family members, then starts to hint at something darker, something stranger, just beyond the bathroom walls. By the time the first act is over, you're hooked, because you're just as mystified and terrified about what's outside that bathroom door as the characters are.

But the real key to the success of "We Need to Do Something" is not just its ability to sustain the sense of tension and mystery within the bathroom, but its ability to push beyond those initial moments of fear and panic and into a deeper, darker kind of fear. Through artfully designed and well-placed flashbacks, we learn what Melissa and Amy were doing in the lead-up to the storm, how their fates intertwined, and what their choices might have to do with everything going on, whether that's all in Melissa's head or not. This facet of the story, driven by incredible performances from McCormick and Alexis, pushes the film beyond apocalyptic horror and into earnest, almost mystical coming-of-age territory, as Melissa works to discover not just what she might have done, but why. When you're a teenager, everything can feel like the end of the world, whether it's a bad grade or a good kiss, and "We Need to Do Something" raises the stakes of its intricate, intimate storytelling by never losing sight of that fact.

Powerful performances

Of course, that intimacy doesn't work without a cast to carry it along, and "We Need to Do Something" is blessed with a quintet of pitch-perfect performances. McCormick, who caught the eye of many genre fans with "The Vast of Night" in 2019, continues to up her game with performances like this one, simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, radiating an inner intensity through her expressive eyes. She's the heart of the film, while Shaw and Healy, with impressive filmographies of their own, work as the lungs, continually raising and lowering the tension with the rhythms of their performances as two parents both in over their heads and sick of each other. As the film wears on, Melissa's backstory takes center stage, but Bobby and Diane have a story of their own, and Healy and Shaw make sure you'll never forget it. Then, of course, there's Cronin, who has his own emotional load to carry throughout the film, and who navigates it with grace and depth, and Alexis, who exerts tremendous influence over the film's emotional tone despite sharing the screen with only one other character in a handful of scenes. It all amounts to an astonishing piece of ensemble horror storytelling — all these people feel so real that the deeper the film descends into madness, the farther we're willing to go with them.

"We Need to Do Something" probably wouldn't work, or at least wouldn't work as well, without the power of the performances at its core. That's just the nature of movies with this level of stripped-down intimacy, but that's not to say the craft applied elsewhere should be neglected. O'Grady has built an impressive, taut, surprise-packed puzzle box of horror with "We Need to Do Something," and he's done it with his feature directorial debut. This is an impressive announcement of a bright new directorial voice in horror filmmaking, but it's also something more. It's a compelling, often strangely moving story of apocalyptic teenage longing, a thriller about a family coming apart at the seams, and the kind of film we'll be talking about a decade from now as a clear and powerful encapsulation of the horrors of the moment we're living in.

"We Need to Do Something" is in theaters and on demand September 3.