Better Watch Out (2016)

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“On a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it’s far from a normal home invasion.” — IMDb

Better Watch Out (originally titled Safe Neighborhood) is Canadian-Australian director Chris Peckover’s second film after 2010’s Undocumented (which is absolutely on my to-watch list now). It was an ambitious project considering the budget was low enough that they couldn’t afford to air condition the set despite shooting in Australia’s high summer heat, and yet the settings are impressive and the cast is even more so.

It opens with teenager Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) heading to one last babysitting gig before she moves out of state. As the parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton, who I wish could have been on-screen longer) head out, 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) quickly gets comfortable trying to convince Ashley that age is just a number when it comes to romance. But he only has time for a few awkward (and rejected) passes before they suspect that someone is lurking inside the house, though the reality is something far more sinister…

** SPOILERS! **

I thought this was a surprisingly smart and engaging movie. I only say “surprisingly” because I generally don’t have super high hopes for pre-teen or teenage-centric movies of recent years, but I should probably let go of that stereotype considering how much I’ve been impressed by the kids in It and Stranger Things, proving that age really IS just a number.

The only thing I really didn’t care much for was the music. It has the requisite Christmas songs interspersed, but the rest of the music I felt was just a bit too… unimpressive? Expected? It wasn’t distracting, but it didn’t stand out to me either.

But the acting was solid all the way around. Even Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton — who are only on screen for maybe 10 minutes total — were great (no surprise there). Everyone was believable, and I thought Luke Miller did a great job at playing this character that is sort of a yet-to-be-polished villain. The evil intent is there, and it’s disturbing to see, but he’s still a kid in many ways (evidenced by the sheer number of times his voice squeaks throughout the film), which felt very purposeful on his part. I was also reminded of how much I like Dacre Montgomery (who you probably know as Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things 2), and I was a bit blown away to see that he’s only 23.

I think what impressed me the most was how smart the script was. I was disappointed seeing the plot go towards what seemed like your standard home invasion movie. There’s only so much you can do with that type of scenario and they made so many typical mistakes in the short time we’re under that pretense that I thought it might be hopeless. But when we get the first twist of the movie out of the way, it turns into something much more complex.

It ends up being a movie focused much more on how insidious toxic masculinity and entitlement can be. Luke’s advances on Ashley at first seem inappropriate but harmless — just a kid with a crush. When she admonishes him for his prank (and tells him he needs therapy, which winds up being much more accurate than it seems at first), you see a glimmer of something more than just disappointment in his eyes — something closer to hate — but you pass it off as him having his dreams crushed and feeling embarrassed. But as the movie progresses and we see what he’s really capable of, you see how much of a sociopath he really is. These little stories told throughout to demonstrate how innocent and normal he is — him accidentally killing his best friend Garrett’s hamster and crying about it, for example — all turn out to be masterminded and played out intentionally by him. It’s a reminder of how there’s never a guarantee that anyone is as they seem.

Luke is territorial (“she’s MY babysitter – you don’t touch her”), manipulative, coercive, and ultimately without much feeling aside from exhilaration at his own capability for violence (his victory dance after first whacking Ricky with a baseball bat, or his exclamation of “his head just exploded!” after proving his Home Alone theory with a can of yellow paint). The most disturbing part of the movie is how we see what looks like a prank-gone-wrong, with Luke scrambling to save face, turn into what it really is: a well-oiled machine, with all of the parts set in place intentionally and diabolically.

But again, we always have this juxtaposition of malicious intent beyond his years paired with reminders of just how youthful he actually is, which only serves to highlight the tragedy of such casual violence. Garrett reminding Luke that he still needs his help with a school paper due on Monday, Ricky having no difficulty prying the bat away from him, Luke scolding Garrett for smoking pot in the house because “my mom will kill me!”… he’s still a kid despite his horrific acts. Which makes him quite a bit more scary — he’s not threatening because he has supernatural powers or even because he has size and strength on his side. He’s threatening because he just doesn’t care. Him shooting Garrett was probably the most shocking for me — cutting off Garrett’s plea of “I want my mom” with a gunshot to the head was basically the definition of indifference.

I also loved the twist at the end. As much as he planned out every single detail, and cheerfully danced around prepping the house for his parents’ arrival, he didn’t count on Ashley being one step ahead.

Smart and fun, definitely worth a watch!

Rating: 6.5/10 | Director: Chris Peckover | Writer: Chris Peckover, Zack Kahn | Music: Brian Cachia | Cinematography: Carl Robertson | Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen

 

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