Back in the before times, when I had a roommate with whom I could endlessly debate back and forth about what we wanted to watch, we had an informal rule of thumb that either one of us could veto a movie if, upon selecting it from the streaming service du jour, we saw the IFC Midnight logo. By the third year of our domesticity, we had, in equal measure, been both burned and delighted (and fallen somewhere in between) by films that attempted to forewarn of their middling budgets by either their hit-or-miss distributor or the lack of confidence in a theatrical release bespoken by having an NCTA rating instead of one by the MPAA. It’s been a long time since those days, both objectively and subjectively, but the 2021 release We Need to Do Something proves that, even if one has to film under pandemic restrictions, some of our old stalwarts can still get something into the consumer’s home that mostly hits, all while doing more with less.
Melissa (Sierra McCormick) is a teenage girl in a situation that goes beyond unenviable: sheltering in an (admittedly spacious and tastefully decorated) bathroom with her mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw, of Hocus Pocus and Clinical fame) and father Robert (Pat Healy), as well as precocious younger brother Bobby (John James Cronin). As her desperate composition of text messages to her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) is continuously interrupted by automated tornado warnings as well as Bobby’s unhelpful recitation of the differences in various cyclone severity rankings, we get insight into the inner workings of this family and their various sins. Diane is clearly having an affair, as she keeps sending inbound calls to voicemail and, when asked about them, says that the calls are coming from “nobody.” Robert’s vice-like grip on his thermos speaks volumes to anyone who’s ever encountered a semi-functioning alcoholic, Melissa’s rebuffing of her mother’s concerned questions about her apparently self-inflicted wrist wound implies a self-harm habit that her parents have ignored, and, finally, Bobby is extremely annoying. Things become extremely dire when not only does an uprooted tree fall in front of the bathroom door, preventing it from opening more than a mere 6-8 inches and thus blocking the family’s egress, but Robert drops Melissa’s phone on the other side of the door while using it as a flashlight to check on this situation. Diane’s phone dies and Robert’s is non-functional in an unexplained way (although it seems like he’s just bad at using it), but Diane lovingly comforts her panicky son, promising that someone will come looking for them soon despite Robert’s agitation and lack of alcohol making the situation even more anxious.
Reviews for this one have been mixed to negative, which I suppose should come as no surprise, based on the track record of non-A24 indie horror lately, like Things Heard and Seen and What Lies Below. Given that the first two auto-fill options when typing the film’s title into Google are “we need to do something ending” and “we need to do something explained,” it’s clear that this is one of those films that has the misfortune to get noticed, but only by the worst kinds of viewers, those raised on a steady diet of C*nemaS*ns (et al) criticism and who need everything to be boiled down, pureed, and fed into their little infant mouths with a rubber-tipped spoon. With that in mind, that the film’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score is 41% isn’t surprising, but that it’s been a failure (55%) with professional critics as well is a bit of a shock. I’ll freely admit that there was a time when I was more likely to gravitate toward narratives with a more defined structure, but I was never someone who got upset about an open-ended and ambiguous ending. Unfortunately, the internet has really given voice to not only white supremacy, incels, and creeps in general, but also to people who would probably drag Frank R. Stockton into the streets and beat him to death, and also whatever the hell this is. Your brains are full of worms, folks, I’m sorry to say, and I think mine might be too. There’s a seemingly universal cry for more explicit storytelling, but to be honest, the worst parts of the film are the ones that center around the reasons why this is happening.
We get an early clue when Melissa is texting as the clouds roll in, when she types out that she thinks that the impending storm front may have “something to do with—” before her screen glitches. In flashbacks, we learn about her relationship with Amy, starting with how they met. Amy has an arm full of scars, implying that she’s a cutter, but there’s more to it than that. She actually has Cotard syndrome, and although the overlap of Cotard’s and self-harm is pretty rare, it’s not unheard of, especially when co-presenting with schizophrenia. Besides this, Amy also appears to be something of a teenage goth, and a witch to boot; Amy believes she “cured” herself of her Cotard’s by casting a necromancy spell on herself, which didn’t necessarily bring her back from the dead, but does appear to have broken her delusion. However, as the result of an odd series of events—which include the two teen girls’ attempts to get back at a literally out-of-focus bully who spreads rumors and digging up the corpse of the family’s dead dog Spot—they may have actually unleashed something otherworldly that is caused their misfortune. One could rightly argue that this is the least interesting thing about the film, even if it does highlight how one can continue to make a film despite restrictions (the scenes with Amy and Melissa are shot entirely outdoors—on sidewalks, behind buildings, seated on bleachers—so that the movie gets away with having only one bathroom set); these could be cut in their entirety and merely increase the tension and mystery, without opening the can of worms that comes with making two teens’ extremely teenagery “magic” unnecessarily powerful. If every angsty teen who carved a bully’s name into a candle summoned a demonic monster (even bearing in mind the potential presence of something living in Amy’s body post-spell), then a lot more abusers and shitty exes would be dead.
Even with that millstone around the film’s neck, it’s still powerful. I’ll grant that this could be because of some of my own psychological fears and damage contributing to the overall discomfort and anxiety that I felt during the runtime. Just as Unsane ended up as my number three film of 2018 by knowing where all of my fears live, so too does We Need to Do Something effectively and articulately seek out and find all of my weak points with regards to having been raised by an abusive father. There’s a scene late in the film in which Robert, driven mad by days without food (or booze), attempts to force young Bobby, first via psychological manipulation and then using physical strength, through the too-narrow space between door and jamb, and when Diane attempts to “interfere” and save her son from having his skull crushed, Robert turns on her with the kind of ferocity that’s all-too-familiar to anyone who were raised by a father with intense and unpredictable rage issues, especially if you had another parent whose entire life seemed to revolve around running interference to protect their child or children from the full force of that particularly banal evil. With all due respect to Jessica Kiang, who wrote in her review for Variety that Something “fails to capture the actual psychological awfulness of being trapped too near your nearest and dearest, with no end in sight,” this film captures that feeling frighteningly well. This one gets a big recommendation from me, although if paternal abuse of the verbal, psychological, or physical forms is a major trigger for you, you might want to sit it out.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond