We may joke that teen girls are possessed, but the creators behind “My Best Friend’s Exorcism” take that concept to heart. Based on the book by Grady Hendrix, director Damon Thomas’ adaptation is centered on a pair of inseparable best friends dealing with a shattering blow when one of them is overtaken by a satanic spirit. Though this ’80s-set horror-comedy takes an old-school approach to capturing the horrific happenings, the stunts are lackluster and the comedic hijinks are a tiresome bore. With very little interest conjured from the filmmakers to properly develop their characters, there’s little incentive to stay interested.
Abby’s (Elsie Fisher) greatest fear in life is losing her best friend Gretchen (Amiah Miller). Little does she know their relationship will be put to the test, and not solely because Gretchen’s scheduled to move over the summer. The pair are in a world of their own, a late-’80s dreamland filled with Aqua Net fumes, bombastic fashions and pop star crushes. But they occasionally make room for their classmates, including painfully shy Glee (Cathy Ang), brash bigot Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and her obnoxious jock boyfriend Wally (Clayton Royal Johnson).
Everything changes for the worse once Margaret invites them up to her parents’ secluded cabin in the woods where, on a dark and spooky night, everyone drops acid. Abby and Gretchen wander off, exploring the condemned home across the lake that’s infamous for being the site of a satanic ritual that claimed the life of a former student at their high school. As Abby begins to trip out, Gretchen gets literally tripped up trying to escape the haunted house and is snatched by a demonic entity. Yet when she returns, Abby notices Gretchen’s not her normal self and begins a quest to rescue her friend.
When it comes to the aesthetics, Thomas and his collaborators style the film with an artistic flourish that harnesses the power of homage, but doesn’t collapse into over-stylization. Rob Givens’ cinematography pulls faint influence from ’80s slasher movies. Practical effects also give it a throwback quality — one that’s noteworthy and endearing, if not terribly sophisticated. Rob Lowry’s soundtrack selections (which include Tiffany, Culture Club, A-ha and Blondie) and Ryland Blackinton’s synth-driven score transport us directly into retro suburbia, acting as a sounding board for the characters’ fears.
Narratively, flashes of substance glimmer when brought into the light, but their brilliance dazzles all too briefly. A moment where Gretchen and Glee challenge the ingrained misogyny behind teen magazine quizzes, which view women only in relation to men, makes for a thoughtful soundbite. But Jenna Lamia’s script is ironically undercut by a few of its female characters being viewed in a similar light in relation to male characters like Wally, who becomes a pawn; Brother Morgan (Cameron Bass), who witnesses Abby’s public humiliation; and Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell), a low-rent, religious fitness guru whom Abby enlists to exorcise Gretchen. (The wordplay on “exercise/exorcise” is enough to make one groan.)
Worse, the filmmakers attempt to tackle sensitive issues dealing with self-harm, showing a distraught Gretchen doing so in a bathroom stall, and disordered eating, having Margaret swayed by evil Gretchen’s “Mean Girl”-inspired dietary advice. These serious, traumatic maladies are used not for anything meaningful (commentary or otherwise), but exclusively as plot devices. The same can be said for outing a queer character and abandoning that thread with no comeuppance for the perpetrator, Gretchen, who’s dependent on the audience’s rooting interest. She may be a monster in that moment, but there’s no coming back from that abhorrent behavior.
Perhaps most baffling is that the two lead actresses are clearly capable and ready to tackle many of the undercooked ingredients in the narrative. Fisher, who turned in compelling work in “Eighth Grade,” and Miller, who was captivating in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” have a sweet, understated chemistry. Fisher’s anguish, specifically in the pivotal betrayal scene, feels palpable. Miller shows off some impressive calisthenics, contorting her body every which way when the demon makes its presence known. But the material frequently fails the characters, giving them superficial insecurities with puddle-deep poignancy, which the actors struggle to elevate via their performances.
With a biting, innovative and feminist film like “Jennifer’s Body” (a clear influence on this story) already in existence, it’s a wonder why anyone would create an inferior, more frustrating iteration. Even in the most generic of terms, it fails to hang together. One half-wishes the spirit of another film would possess this one, which infuriatingly ends on an “Animal House”-style end credits roll for characters that never earn our like, let alone respect. The power of Christ, Satan or any other force compels you to steer clear.