Lulu Wilson has built up quite a resume of horror films and thriller TV, including “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Annabelle: Creation,” “The Haunting of Hill House” and “Sharp Objects.” She’s in those projects, and she’s good in them, but in the home invasion thriller “Becky,” she truly stars. Also revelatory in this violent, tense, taut and not remotely comedic little gem is Kevin James (yes, that Kevin James).
Writers Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye give the two stars a lot to chew on in these career-changing roles. Wilson is the titular 13-year-old who sets out to challenge the assertion of her dad Jeff (Joel McHale) that “you can’t stay mad at me forever.” Becky’s mom had died of cancer a year ago, and she feels her dad is moving on too fast by inviting girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel) and Kayla’s young son Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe) for a weekend at their lake home. (A specific setting is not given, but “Becky” is filmed in Ontario.)
I like how co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion intercut Becky’s typical high school observances with the typical prison yard observances of Dominick (James). Taken on their own, the sequences of bullying and shankings are clichés, but put together they say something about the cycle of violence within public institutions – violence that society unfortunately takes as a given now.
It’s not an accidental choice, as “Becky” becomes shockingly violent. Those who watch a lot of horror films won’t be too traumatized, but let’s just say that at least three moments are worthy of a Fangoria article. Most of the nail-biting, though, comes from the tautness of the screenplay, which finds four escaped cons invading the backwoods home and four innocent people racking their brains for how to survive this encounter. It’s enhanced by Nima Fakhrara’s score, which sometimes includes heavy breathing as an “instrument.”
Impressively, “Becky” finds room for serious character development and messages. How many horror-thrillers take the time for a mountain-man henchman (Robert Maillet as Apex) to reflect on the moral cost of his actions, without it being ridiculous? “Becky” does, and Maillet is good enough that I reflected on some of the events from Apex’s perspective.
The stars remain James and Wilson, though. With a beard and swastika tattoos, James gives a measured yet terrifying turn as a man who claims he just wants a key – hidden in the basement but now missing – and then he’ll be on his way.
Wilson builds on Becky’s seemingly typical teen moroseness in an unexpected way, forcing us to ask a question parents probably shy away from when dealing with a troubled child: What if it’s not just a phase? Yet she isn’t merely Kevin McCallister given R-rated freedom. Becky is rightly scared of Dominick and his gang, and she’s not an expert at thinking on her feet. But Becky’s life experiences have not shaped her into a pushover, so both Dominick and the viewer find this simple break-in going in directions not precisely proscribed by “The Strangers” or “Home Alone.”
The plot may be lean, and the performances winning, but “Becky” has a surprising number of layers. “Get Out” popped into my mind at one point – but didn’t stay there. And here I must institute a SPOILER WARNING for the rest of the post.
Dominick is searching for a key, and Becky holds the key, leading us to ask “Why doesn’t she just give it up?” Along the same lines, we look forward to the revelation of what that key opens. I thought it might be the final image of the film.
As it turns out, the key stands for nothing; it’s just a narrative device to keep Dominick obsessed and Becky protective. I think maguffins are fine in films that don’t lead us to expect something out of it, or where a theoretical revelation can’t possibly be as good as the journey up to that point (“Pulp Fiction’s” briefcase is a famous example).
As good as “Becky” is, it leans on the key’s mystery so much that it’s essentially promising that we’ll get an answer. I wasn’t bored for a frame of this movie, but it needed one more revelation to earn a spot with horror masterpieces such as “Get Out.” That film comes to mind because Dominick briefly expresses to Kayla (who is black) that the key relates to his understanding of why the races need to be separate. He says if he finds the key it will help not only his white race but also Kayla’s black race. What a fizzling feeling when the credits roll without an answer.
Instead, “Becky” is like “Halloween 4” and “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” in that it’s a story of a young person who gets up close with evil and then starts on her own road to evil. This is a better film than those examples because it’s all about the girl’s inner nature; it’s not a twist saved for the end. But “Becky” misses its chance to be more original with one last kicker about the key.