A germaphobe, an anorexic and a guy with Tourette’s syndrome embark on a long journey in “The Road Within,” and if you’ve heard this one before, it may be because you’ve already experienced “Vincent Wants to Sea,” the 2010 German dramedy that provides an almost scene-for-scene blueprint for writer-director Gren Wells’ American remake. Similarly calculating in its bid for laughs and tears, this tale of three twentysomething misfits boasts a somewhat rougher indie edge than its more polished predecessor, a stylistic decision that suits the bristling and committed performances by Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel and Zoe Kravitz. Still, there remains a nagging tidiness to the whole endeavor that leaves a strained, cloying aftertaste, suggesting commercial performance in line with the picture’s overall modest impact.
“Amy Winehouse sucks my cock!” turns out to be one of the more printable things involuntarily uttered by Vincent (Sheehan), a young man whose Tourette’s manifests itself in the form of uncontrollable jerking movements and profane, belligerent outbursts. His tics have been even more violent and difficult to control following his mother’s recent death, prompting his estranged politician father, Robert (Robert Patrick), to drop him off at a clinic for young people with psychological disorders. There, under the stern but caring guardianship of Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick), Vincent soon befriends Marie (Zoe Kravitz), an anorexic with a wry, cynical attitude. He doesn’t hit it off quite so well with his British roommate, Alex (Patel), whose severe obsessive-compulsive disorder has made him an even more difficult case than Vincent.
From the scene in which Vincent first steps into Alex’s room — the camera trembling as though racked by seizures, the characters’ shouting voices cranked up to 11 — it’s clear that Wells, a producer-writer-actress making her directorial debut, means to impose a grittier, more psychologically invasive style on the material than helmer Ralf Huettner attempted in “Vincent Wants to Sea.” And the confrontational rawness of the filmmaking at times feels like the right choice for a story that’s all about sharp edges and abrasive personalities coming into conflict. This is especially true when Vincent and Marie manage to steal Dr. Rose’s car and drive off into the night, dragging a madly protesting Alex along with them in order to keep him from alerting the authorities.
As this highly dysfunctional trio make their way over miles and miles of scenic woodland (nicely lensed by d.p. Christopher Baffa), Wells’ script serves up its fair share of cliches — some of them imported directly from the German pic (Vincent plans to scatter his mother’s ashes at the beach), some of them new to the material (the tin carrying those ashes will of course be mistaken for something else). And as the title makes all too thuddingly clear, these bickering outcasts aren’t just in for a long car ride, theirs is destined to be a deeper, more inward journey, one that will teach them the importance of forming deep friendships and not walling themselves off from each other or from society. Meanwhile, Robert is forced to put his re-election campaign on hold and team up with Dr. Rose to track down the wayward trio; naturally, the neglectful dad and the concerned clinician have some lessons of their own to learn.
Not unlike “Little Miss Sunshine” (a film invoked in the press materials), “The Road Within” seeks to mine humor and feeling from its characters’ various scars and setbacks, while also celebrating their momentary triumphs and fleeting acts of rebellion. For all the movie’s apparent empathy, however — signaled by an overactive score by Josh Debney and the Newton Brothers — there’s finally something a bit mechanical about the way it invites us to laugh at their personal failings one minute and weep at them the next, and also something uncomfortably manipulative about the way certain compulsions are milked for specific emotional effects. Alex’s need to open and shut doors repeatedly and refusal of all bodily contact are good for a chuckle or two, but the sight of Marie sticking her finger down her throat is clearly meant to put a lump in yours.
Of course, Vincent’s plight — not just his Tourette’s, but the isolation it brings — is clearly meant to inspire a more complex reaction. And while the story’s machinations are too transparent to really resonate, Irish actor Sheehan (sounding thoroughly and convincingly American) makes a fine impression in a role that demands all manner of verbal, vocal and bodily contortions, which he just about manages to pull off without going overboard. As the member of the trio whose disorder is at once the least conspicuous and the most life-threatening, Kravitz never allows her character’s sickly pallor and skeletal physique to overwhelm her sly natural charisma. Displaying a real live-wire presence different from anything he’s done before, Patel makes an arrestingly twitchy foil, even if Alex — who reveals a few more tics here than in his German incarnation — never transcends his function as a generator of easy laughs. The actor’s comic timing is impeccable; if only “The Road Within’s” emotional epiphanies didn’t also arrive so perfectly on cue.