Sundance 2024 Review: IT'S WHAT'S INSIDE, Leave Your (College) Friends Behind

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: IT'S WHAT'S INSIDE, Leave Your (College) Friends Behind

The friends we make in high school and college often aren’t the friends we keep.

Good reasons abound as to why friendships don’t carry over 10, 20, or 30 years, but the key one, the “why” or “whys” friendships form (e.g., location, convenience, commonality of interests, general age) tends to fade with time.

Remaining fixated on college and college friendships can, as writer-director Greg Jardin points out in his feature-length debut, It’s What’s Inside, can lead to deleterious and in some cases, horrifically inescapable consequences. Sometimes it’s not the friends we made along the way, but the friends we smartly left behind that matter most to our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

A horror-comedy wrapped around an ultra-clever science-fiction-based mystery, It’s What's Inside initially centers on a longtime couple, Shelby (Brittany O’Grady) and Cyrus (James Morosini), facing a not uncommon crossroads in long-term relationships: dating since college and living together for the better part of a decade, there’s little to no passion left. Shelby thinks otherwise, trying a bit of cosplay involving a wig to entice a disinterested, porn-obsessed Cyrus. Shelby’s entreaties fail spectacularly, humiliating her in the process, all but indicating Shelby and Cyrus’s status as a couple will soon come to an end.

Before Shelby and Cyrus can figure out the future viability of their currently sputtering relationship, there’s an upcoming wedding on the agenda and it promises to be a blast: their longtime friend, Reuben (Devon Terrell), the wealthy scion of a once-renowned, now dead artist, has invited all of his college friends for a weekend soiree at the family mansion. Sending his future wife, Sophia (Aly Nordlie), offsite for the weekend, Reuben hopes to reconnect with his old friends. And by reconnect, he means engaging in debauched antics without breaking federal, state, or local laws.

By the time Shelby and Cyrus drive to Reuben’s family compound, almost all of their mutual friends have already arrived in party mode. The cast of revelers includes Nikki (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a blonde-haired social media influencer with a cult-like following and, not incidentally, Cyrus’s first and likely unrequited college crush; Dennis (Gavin Leatherwood), an obnoxious bro-dude feasting on a family trust fund; Maya (Nina Bloomgarden), an over-tattooed, wild-haired New Age adherent;  and Brooke (Reina Hardesty), not quite a hanger-on, but always not quite fully formed with a personality of her own.

Another member of the party, Forbes (David W. Thompson), an ultra-successful tech guru and one-time classmate expelled from college for his involvement with underage drinking, arrives soon thereafter. Sporting a perpetual Cheshire Cat-like smile and a mysterious suitcase, Forbes cheekily offers his ex-classmates the chance to play a life-altering game.

The game isn’t for everyone, though. It’s only for the brave and the bold among his ex-classmates. Play the game and enter a world of new, unique experiences. Don’t play the game and nothing changes. Not surprisingly, everyone, including an initially hesitant Shelby, participates in the game and as Forbes predicts, everything changes and no one remains unchanged by the experience.

While the particulars of Forbes’s game won’t be spoiled here, the seemingly lo-tech game itself serves as a conduit for the college “friends” to explore who and what they truly are before descending into bitterness, resentment, and eventually, violence. Despite outward appearances, almost no one at Reuben’s party considers themselves happy or content with their particular lots in life, except Shelby. Instead, they see each other, not with empathy or sympathy expected from supposedly true friends, but with the envy and jealousy of false ones.

From that envy and jealousy spring all manner of mordantly hilarious complications, good, bad, and at least for several characters, terrible. The often over-complicated, convoluted plot compels Jardin to use every visual trick in the film book, up to and including inserts/cutaways, split screens, and giallo-inspired color gels. Most work, some don’t, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, not to admire Jardin’s near-Herculean efforts to convey the fast unfolding plot without losing momentum or worse, irrevocably confusing the audience.

Ultimately, It’s What’s Inside message about the nature of friendships borders on the cynical, but in a social media age where self-absorbed, self-entitled social influencers rake in shedloads of cash by selling a manufactured version of themselves, it nonetheless rings depressingly true. It’s What’s Inside is also rarely less than engaging and almost always amusing as it speeds headlong toward the inevitable head-on collision, metaphorically speaking, of course.

It’s What’s Inside premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix purchased distribution rights and will release it later this year.

It's What's Inside

  • Greg Jardin
  • Greg Jardin
  • Alycia Debnam-Carey
  • Madison Davenport
  • Brittany O'Grady
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Alycia Debnam-CareyBrittany O'GradyDavid W. ThompsonGreg JardinIt's What's InsideJames MorosiniMadison DavenportComedyHorrorMystery

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