It's been a while since I've seen a film translate a good book as poorly as My Best Friend's Exorcism does. It's based on Grady Hendrix's novel, which in turn was inspired by both '80s horror movies and that era's teen flicks. In seeing how the story has been adapted, one has to wonder if the filmmakers even read the book, or if they just read the Wikipedia synopsis and tried to guess what the tone should be. Whatever happened, they miss the mark by a wide margin.
Two teenage best friends are at the center. Gretchen (Amiah Miller) is pretty and popular, Abby (Eighth Grade's Elsie Fisher) awkward and shy. They obsess over things kids in the '80s loved, like Boy George and Tiffany. During a weekend lakeside getaway with friends, the girls try LSD, then venture into an old, abandoned shack they find in the middle of nowhere. A creepy entity that might or might not be a drug hallucination is inside, causing them to flee. Abby gets out first. Gretchen gets out a short time later, seemingly traumatized by whatever happened to her in there.
In the days afterward, Gretchen's personality changes. She becomes bolder, meaner. When the adults in her life ignore her pleas for help, Abby turns to a religious weightlifter, Christian Lemon (Christopher Lowell), for help. (He'd previously been part of an assembly at her school.) Christian believes Gretchen has been possessed by a demon and requires an exorcism, which he convinces Abby to help him carry out.
The problem with adapting Hendrix's book is that it requires a very precise tone. On the page, the story deftly mixes comedy with horror, always knowing when to push one forward and pull the other one back. My Best Friend's Exorcism can't replicate that vibe. At times, it's a broad, almost silly comedy. Then it abruptly flips to serious horror and back again, repeating like that throughout. Consequently, neither half works. The humor feels out of place with the horror, and the horror feels out of place with the humor. It's as though director Damon Thomas doesn't know what kind of movie he's making. Tonal inconsistency of this sort causes the entire plot to collapse.
Serious character-based problems compound that. Although Miller and Fisher are perfectly cast, Jenna Lamia's screenplay rushes through the introduction of Gretchen and Abby. We barely know them or understand the important dynamics of their bond before the mayhem starts. Hendrix was careful to draw the girls' personalities, so that when the central dilemma hits, readers are struck by the choices they make in handling (or not handling) a paranormal crisis. None of that survives the translation. The approach to Christian is all wrong, too. Lowell leans into the jokes, actively trying to be funny. Any tension the third act is supposed to contain is rendered moot as a result. A Christian bodybuilder attempting to force a demon out of a teenage girl is witty enough. Emphasizing that wittiness by doing a lite version of Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High sucks the life right out of it.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek spirit, we're supposed to care about whether Abby can get the demon out. The entire point of the tale is to look at the intense friendships between adolescents. In saving Gretchen, Abby is also saving a relationship that means the world to her. The weight of that comes across strongly in the book. It doesn't come across at all on the screen. My Best Friend's Exorcism drags horribly, even at 96 minutes, because it never grasps the fundamental meaning of the story. All the Tiffany references and gross-out moments in the world can't compensate for the utter lack of sincerity or emotion.
This is one of 2022's biggest disappointments.
out of four
My Best Friend's Exorcism is rated R for teen drug use, language, sexual references and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.