Sundance 2024 Film Review: It’s What’s Inside

What interested me most in the first 20 minutes of Greg Jardin’s noisome bro-mean girl-sci-fi-freakout It’s What’s Inside, was the rather ingenious and layered moment in which the film’s nominal heroine, Shelby, scrolls through Instagram, accumulating information and anxiety in connection to the upcoming wedding of her friends Reuben and Sophia, collectively known as “#reuphia.” On their way to a pre-wedding bash, Shelby (Brittany O’Grady) and her live-in boyfriend Cyrus (James Morosini), in the passenger and driver seats of their car, respectively, are confined to inset frames as the screen gradually becomes overwhelmed by popup windows showing their friends’ breathless posts about how excited they are for the wedding, their accompanying text voiced by the various characters we’ll soon meet. It’s a brief clip, but its frenetic and hilarious energy, its simple solution to depicting a chaos of image, text and emoticons, while clearly defining the rising tide of Shelby’s inner turmoil, demonstrate early on Jardin’s smart comic sensibility and the deftness, accessibility and modishness of his cinematic vision.

Which is also to say that I pretty quickly hated most—maybe all—of the film’s subjects. Loud, boorish, privileged, self-satisfied, effete, pretentious…shall I go on? When I feel this way, even after the momentary pleasure of the scene I’ve described, for another ten or fifteen minutes, it seems natural to begin wondering if maybe this film isn’t for me. Am I supposed to identify with anyone here? Are they designed to be repellent? Maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe it’s genre? What is the genre? Do I even know yet? Someone’s going to show up with a suitcase with a mystery, so, okay, give it another couple of minutes and see what happens. (Jardin does provide some cagey closeups of the device right at the beginning, just to get us interested, but one still has no idea.) Anyway, I think I’m supposed to hate these people?

The party to which Shelby and Cyrus are heading, for just Reuben and his college gang—Sophia, the bride-to-be, nevertheless inexplicably (ahem, conveniently) absent—is set to take place at an immense pile, like an English manor house, in some spooky, misty forest somewhere—are we heading into Ari Aster’s Midsommar imaginary? [*scratching chin emoji*] Nah. The place, it turns out, now belongs to groom-to-be Reuben, whose (conveniently) recently deceased mother’s large-scale, vaginally focused artworks still remain scattered around the grounds and the mansion’s interior. The sculptures are dangerous, more physically than aesthetically, which is what gives them purpose in the script. Keep in mind (if I haven’t already made it clear) that much of the backstory in It’s What’s Inside is tissue-thin, absurd and merely functional, to create easy exigency for this or that. 

[Does anything in the present of the film, other than a couple of lines of dialogue, really make me believe that the characters went to college? Studying what exactly? And supposedly they have jobs now? The assumption, or, in a couple of cases, direct statement that these late-twenty-somethings already have all the money they’ll ever need is supposed to resolve most concerns, I suppose, because, as we know, or so I’ve heard, possessing a fortune pretty much eliminates a need to justify anything, c.f….oh, whatever.]

[Wait, but does the film even need to take place at this huge mansion? It certainly provides atmosphere and spaces for the characters to secret themselves away, as necessary, to work out a variety of unresolved emotional and erotic issues. But then, the spooky structure also may remind us of something like an Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes show, something both gothic and mind-twisting. Or maybe this is going to turn out more like an old horror film? The Haunting of Hill House? But funny? Whatever, it’s good atmosphere, it’s fine. Go on.]

And so, yes, it turns out that that one friend, alienated from the group after being expelled from college [*rolling eyes emoji*] because of an incident involving his sister and another friend and his former girlfriend—now also present at this party—but who’s made good anyway, becoming a big tech guy, does arrive after all with that suitcase, which, yes, allows them to bodyswap(?!?) and wouldn’t it be a great party game to slip into each other’s bodies and then try to guess who’s who, while continuing to get drunk, high, etc.?

Okay, so there’s something of the teen sex comedy here, too, but, you know, this atmosphere stuff is kind of working for me, now, and it seems like Jardin is consciously engaging with that treasured genre of the comic whodunnit, such as Murder by Death (1976) and Clue (1985), and, honestly, despite some carelessness with the writing (I know you can do better, Greg!), I was pretty entertained by the performances. The whole gag of the film’s actors taking on each other’s mannerisms is fun and confusing, like the film is a game for the viewer, too, which Jardin obviously intended because, without breaking the spell, he introduces a clever and effective device of reminding us which cup the bean is under in case we’ve gotten lost in the who’s who, and it totally works as the stakes get higher in some unexpected ways, and we finally arrive, through yet another left turn, at a rather satisfying denouement, or coda, as the film would have it. So, yes, while It’s What’s Inside has flaws, ultimately it’s an entertaining and frequently smart, media-savvy debut that makes me curious to see what Jardin will come up with next.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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