The best horror films don’t succeed based solely on expertly crafted scares, grisly kills or well shot sequences. It’s deft character work that binds the best of the bunch together. If we, the audience, don’t forge a connection with the characters being tormented, we’re just strangers in a dark room watching make-believe. Investing in the protagonists, your haunted house tenants and Final Girls, makes the threat real. You care about these people, so their helpless foot chases have weight.
Director Lex Lybrand and screenwriter Brandon Stroud (here, working from real life stories told by his girlfriend, Destiny Talley) understand this principle, and it’s this emotional force that drives their new film, Meet Me There.
The film opens with two strangers meeting at an airport. Both men happen to be heading to Oklahoma City. They exchange naturalistic banter about sports. Things start out reasonable enough, but the whole affair abruptly takes a hard left turn. The entire cold open of the film feels like a uniquely fucked up take on Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the tale.
We meet Ada (Lisa Friedrich) and Calvin (Micheal Foulk), a couple struggling with sexual intimacy. Their relationship is touchingly portrayed, and within a few minutes of screen time, we get a strong understanding of the two lead characters. Their lives feel lived-in and their chemistry is palpable. A sex scene during the opening credits telegraphs the couple’s troubles, and a scene during a therapy session allows the characters to speak nakedly on their individual states of mind without coming off as cheap exposition. Their counselor is concerned Ada’s issues with intimacy stem from some long-forgotten childhood trauma, a supposition that provides the impetus for a road trip to Sheol, Oklahoma, the fictional small town where Ada is from.
Knowing this is a horror film of sorts, you can begin to imagine how things go wrong from there, but the magic in Meet Me There is how little the filmmakers try to “horror” up the proceedings. For the first half of the film’s running time, the story is played straight, not unlike a more emotionally resonant take on the mumblecore films of Andrew Bujalski. An impending sense of dread colors everything a tint of portentous, but this is a film unafraid to take its time and let us into Ada and Calvin’s relationship. Something as pedestrian as a long car ride lets us feel the charisma Friedrich and Foulk imbue in their characters.
The dialogue is subtle and witty, never once devolving into the snarky, self satisfied tone similar films trade in, nor does it settle for rote, stuttering improvisation. There’s a moment where Ada and Calvin begin to gel, where Ada lets her guard down and is genuinely in awe of Calvin’s dedication to their growth. In another movie, “Man drives girlfriend to hometown in search of nookie” would play very differently, but Foulk’s vulnerability and sweetness really grounds the plot. We watch as the pair excitedly give sex in the backseat of the car a go, only for Ada to tense up again. When we cut back to the drive, the camera is outside the car, an austere distance between the audience and the characters, unlike the handheld, close-up coverage of the preceding scenes.
I would have been in the bag for this movie based just on the relationship stuff, but once they get to Sheol and we meet a bevy of freaky townspeople, including Scary Godmother artist Jill Thompson as Ada’s junkie Aunt and WWE wrestler Goldust (real name Dustin Runnels) as a frightening preacher, things really take off. Take the backwoods paranoia of Deliverance and the village isolation of The Wicker Man (the original, obviously) blended with a lyrical, off-kilter fascination with nature that calls to mind Terrence Malick, and you have an idea what the back half of Meet Me There has in store.
Runnels, in particular, delivers an amazing performance with his small amount of screen time. I’ve always been a fan of his wrestling work, but here he manages to be captivating in a different way, cannibalizing every frame he’s in, like a mesmerizing black hole.
I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of the film’s third act, as it’s much better experienced than summarized, but I applaud Meet Me There for exploring the knotty complexities of sexual frustration and relationship theory, then extrapolating those very real psychological elements into truly disturbing horror film imagery. It’s as if the unknown terror lurking in Ada’s past comes to life, taking corporeal form as a tangible menace to be conquered and overcome. Genre storytelling that acts as an extreme depiction of every day obstacles always works, and Meet Me There is no exception.
By setting out to tell a deeply personal, real world tale and slowly turning it into an uneasy thriller, Meet Me There functions both as an experimental indie film and an effective piece of modern horror. There’s an old school feeling behind the production that transcends the average low budget scare affair. After this, I’m excited to see what this team tackles next.
Meet Me There is currently making the rounds at various film festivals. You can follow the film’s journey and find a screening near you at MeetMeThereMovie.com