Two suburban teenagers use surveillance equipment to torment a disliked elderly neighbor in the suspense drama “The Good Neighbor” (originally titled “The Waiting”). This debut feature for director Kasra Farahani and scenarists Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard holds interest, though it’s ultimately more depressing than tense or shocking. The lack of real horror content (though the protags try to convince James Caan’s victim that he’s being “haunted”) or box office names makes it a likelier prospect for home-format sales than big-screen exposure.
High schoolers Sean (Keir Gilchrist) and Ethan (Logan Miller) have been besties since Sean recently moved to town, not least because both hail from fatherless broken homes (character basics that could have been made clearer a lot sooner). They spend most of their extracurricular time in Ethan’s bedroom, where they’ve embarked on a project whose pricey required equipment was obliviously bankrolled by Sean’s absentee dad. But its gist is all the brainchild of budding little sociopath Ethan.
Their target is Harold Grainey (Caan), whom Ethan describes as this “creepy psycho hermit.” After planting spy-cams and other devices around his house across the street during his weekly grocery run, they plan to subject him to a gradually escalating series of disturbances meant to suggest a supernatural presence — the point, such as it is, being to observe what happens as they drive him mad. The recorded/edited/posted end product will then presumably launch Ethan as a “great filmmaker,” at least in terms of hitting a million or so YouTube views. Though Sean has qualms about the cruelty and legality of this endeavor, it oddly never occurs to either boy that even (or especially) in the case of a successful result, they might be reviled rather than applauded.
Watching the action unfold on the bank of computer monitors at Ethan’s, they begin by triggering loud sleep-disrupting noises and making a screen door repeatedly, inexplicably slam. They’re puzzled, however, by Harold’s lack of fear or surprise in response to such phenomena. Indeed, he seems grimly resigned to everything, beyond the occasional flash of anger. (And he expresses more of that toward a passing neighbor’s peeing dog than he does over these haunts.) More intriguing are the old gent’s periodic disappearances for long hours into a locked basement where they placed no cameras. What’s he got down there? A captive? A dead body? The wife that Ethan says his drunken brutality drove away?
The truth isn’t revealed until the end, via a somewhat clumsy pileup of flashbacks featuring Laura Innes as that wife. But we’ve long since guessed that it’s going to be more sad than alarming, and that Ethan rather than Harold is going to emerge the villain of the piece. (Recurrent flash-forwards to a criminal trial also somewhat spoil the impact of what we learn early will be a tragic outcome.)
The script has some familiar, vaguely disapproving things to say about latchkey kids (both the teen leads are under-supervised by workaholic or absent parents), depersonalizing technology, and the pursuit of fatuous social-media fame. But there’s not much real suspense stirred here by a premise that straddles recent found-footage thrillers and “Rear Window.” What happens in Harold’s house consistently takes a backseat to the push-pull between the manipulative Ethan and the wary Sean, which is interesting enough but more irksome than scary.
Though the film seldom ventures beyond the two homes’ interiors, it doesn’t suffer from staginess or claustrophobia. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have hurt to open things up by offering a little more insight into the protagonists’ family, friends and community. Performances are solid enough, even if veteran Caan is somewhat hemmed in playing an emotionally bottled-up character who gets little dialogue and even less to “do.” (Harold spends most of his time sipping whisky in a living-room recliner.)
Tech and design contributions are pro if a bit uninspired.