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Saturday, September 22, 2012

House at the End of the Street Movie Review

Having Elizabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence play a mother and daughter is an inspired bit of casting. Aside from being strong actresses in their own right, they both also possess a quality that makes you intrinsically root for them to overcome whatever a movie throws at them. So much so that in "House at the End of the Street" - a convoluted psychological thriller that unravels as it should be tightening - you find yourself hoping it'll be a better movie despite the obvious warning signs. Even in light of typical tropes that these characters would never do (opening doors in the dead of night, walking down dark staircases), you still hope for the best.

In the end, "House" doesn't quite live up to its ambitions. And it is ambitious. Ms. Shue and Ms. Lawrence play Sarah and Elissa Cassidy, a mother and daughter starting a new life in a small, heavily wooded town. It seems Dad was a rock musician who was never there for them and Sarah has decided to "give this mom thing a try" on their own.

Of course, as is often the case, the house next door to their rental was the scene of a brutal double-murder. Four years earlier, a father and mother were killed there by their mentally ill daughter, who disappeared into the woods after the crime. Now the house is occupied by their mysterious - but dreamy - son, Ryan. (Note: we can assume one of these characters lives in the location of the film's title, though the geography of the neighborhood is oddly never made clear.)

As Ryan, Max Thieriot turns up just the right amount of misunderstood brooding to make any new-girl-in-town's heart swoon. And, naturally, Elissa and Ryan begin a relationship that makes everyone in town a bit nervous. And that includes, perhaps, director Mark Tonderai ("Hush"), whose relentlessly stylish handling of the material (shaky hand-held, extreme close-ups, lots of rack-focus) makes you think he's compensating for something. That something might be a script - by David Loucka - that can't decide what it wants to be. Deep down, it aims to be a character study, and there are some smart moments here and there. But then, after tipping its hand too early (have you guessed the twist yet?), the film falls into the typical girl-in-trouble laziness (a cop with a busted flashlight? Really?).

As for Ms. Shue and Ms. Lawrence, they're the real draw here. Ms. Shue, radiant as ever and happily piranha-free, embraces this next phase of her career (and here's hoping it continues). And Ms. Lawrence, in her pre-Katniss form ("House" was filmed before "The Hunger Games" made the actress a household face), still retains some of the innocence of a young actress in awe of her own rising stardom. The two actresses remain so likable that you find yourself hoping someone would create a great TV series for them. Or at least a horror movie that doesn't lead them down a dead end street.

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