What lies on the other side of darkness? The most obvious answer is “light.” But there’s a big difference between the knowing of something and the actual experience of the thing. So while one might presume to find light on the other side of darkness, it’s really a matter of perspective and what one chooses to see. At least, this seems to be the subtext of writer/director Adam Deierling’s family drama The Other Side of Darkness, currently available on home video and on various streaming services. With the look of a family film and the content of more adult fare, Deierling appears to emulate tales like Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B&B Robbery (2020) or Flight of the Navigator (1986) (maybe even The Goonies (1985)) as the look of the film possesses a certain “after school” quality while the narrative is a mix between extraordinarily dark turns and adolescent adventure. Straddling the line may open up who may be interested in engaging with such a cinematic journey, but, by not choosing, all light succumbs to Darkness.
Taylor Jo Roberts (Maggie Callahan) is about to turn 16 and is dreaming of owning her first car. But when she loses her job as a mechanic, all hope seems lost. That is until a strange package arrives on her doorstep in time for her birthday, kicking off an adventure that will take Taylor Jo (and two friends) on an adventure to find herself. What she doesn’t realize is that as her world seems like it’s opening up, a terrible secret threat is growing larger on the horizon that only Taylor Jo may be equipped to face.
Inside Darkness are two films: one which is an adult thriller exploring the ways in which teens maintain their positivity despite incredible traumas and another that’s a light family tale involving reconciliation and adventure. On their own, the films are engaging and tonally in-sync. Together, however, there’s a strange dissonance that makes Darkness difficult to take seriously. The opening, for instance, involves a voiceover with video montage detailing the ways in which modern society relies on electricity to navigate life. It’s a crutch, to be sure, but it’s the foundation for everything now and, without it, just about every society would crumble in an instant, opening themselves up to dystopia almost immediately. That it then cuts to Taylor Jo (called TJ by her friends) listening to music as she bikes before startling her friend Hannah (Olivia Billings), who’s out for a run, offering a nice setup between the troubles to come and the peace of the moment. What follows, however, involves a situation in which TJ loses her job that’s far more serious than a simple mistake, but could lead to a lawsuit and bodily harm. This is, of course, glossed over for the sake of the larger narrative, which we basically forget about when TJ is propositioned by her inebriated foster father in front of, who we presume, is his wife and her foster mother. There’s a line of dialogue here that implies this isn’t the first time such a proposition has been made or that abuse may have taken place. This is *literally* the kind of gnarly stuff in kid’s films from the 1980s that’s used as character development before the character embarks on a quest of self-discovery. Without getting into spoiler territory, this isn’t the only time it happens in the film and the second is arguably much worse, especially when the audience takes any time at all to think about it. Does it happen in these types of situations as explored in the film? I’m sure that it does. But Darkness is trying to also be a family film. Therefore, a question forms regarding Deierling’s overall narrative intention.
Credit where credit is due, both Deierling and cinematographer Vinny Sisson (My Way) staged many shots so that their feel in the moment is in-line with the tone they’re seeking in the scene. In a scene where Hannah is exploring the woods alone, the framing provokes appropriate disquiet as she discovers a tunnel, the darkness of the hidden parts enveloping the sun’s light and lush green of the forest as if to convey a greater danger that threatens to swallow them all. On the converse, when TJ, Hannah, and Hannah’s brother Patrick (Drake Tobias), are riding together earlier in the film, the direction and cinematography captures the excitement and freedom of the open road, calling forth from the audience the same kind of exhilaration one feels when revisiting moments of the aforementioned Flight of the Navigator or The Goonies. The frustrating thing is that the tones are strong on their own, yet the styles don’t mesh in a cohesive way over the course of the whole.
In terms of telling a story that leaves the audience feeling uplifted and capable, I think The Other Side of Darkness achieves its goal. There’s behavior to be modeled from TJ in terms of resilience, positivity, and compassion, not to mention being uninterested in fitting into society’s views of gender norms. When the film opts for one lane or the other, TJ as a character is compelling because of the way Callahan presents her: stalwart and focused despite the odds. But while Callahan is able to walk the thin line between, the rest of the characters often come across as being in a different film than the rest. Either they’re overly dramatic in their performances (works in the family film where larger proportions in performance can be fun; less convincing as authentic in a drama/thriller), the look and sound don’t match the context of the moment from one scene to the next, or the narrative seemingly creates situations or circumstances merely for the sake of what’s needed next versus what the characters need. These incongruities work in a family film where the rules of storytelling need only be consistent within the framework of the film, whereas drama/thrillers also have to take the real world into consideration for their storytelling realism.
In the end, the notion the film explores regarding what’s after darkness is laudable. Too often there’s a sense that light always comes to clear it away or that darkness will always return. The truth is that life is complex and one can be on the other side of darkness and be a form of grey. That one can live inside a system without making us of it entirely. Or one can have a family that’s a mix of chosen and blood tie. Or that one can be the light for themselves as they walk the path. These are interesting ideas that the script toys with, even if the tonal imbalance makes it difficult to grasp in the moment.
Available on Tubi September 2nd, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Other Side of Darkness website.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.