Director/co-writer Chris Peckover’s last film, 2010’s Undocumented, is a dark and violent journey into the world of illegal immigration, and some might expect by title alone that his latest is a Donald Trump-approved sequel. Thankfully that’s not the case as instead Better Watch Out (aka Safe Neighborhood) is a home invasion thriller that takes an immediate position towards the top of the sub-genre thanks to a smart script, terrific performances, and a bright, holiday-themed appeal. Fair warning now though, this is a movie destined to be ruined in a big way by its eventual first trailer.
Luke (Levi Miller) is just a few weeks away from his thirteenth birthday, but as his parents (Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton) prepare for a night out with friends the only thing on his mind is his babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). He’s had a crush on her for years, and now that she’s moving away he’s decided this is his last chance to let her know how he feels. His romantic effort is interrupted though by the arrival of an uninvited guest toting a shotgun and a desire to kill.
That’s all you’ll get from me regarding the plot as this is a film that benefits from going in as cold as possible. All films do, but some, like this one, demand it.
There is so much to enjoy here as Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn ensure from the beginning that we care about these characters. Luke’s puppy love is recognizable to anyone who was ever a pre-teen, and Ashley is more than just an empty beauty. Even Luke’s parents and nerdy best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), are given time to shine early on before the mayhem begins, with the latter humorously shooting down Luke’s attempt at finding seduction techniques in the pages of Maxim Magazine.
Better Watch Out avoids genre cliches including the expected descent into darkly-lit rooms and instead builds suspense and thrills throughout the confines of the bright and colorful home. It’s a suburban dwelling, but the holiday excuses the lack of immediate neighbors setting the stage for a bloody war with little hope for outside help. Our heroes are cut off from assistance and forced to fight back with their wits and whatever items they can find nearby making for a fun, scrappy, and frequently tense ride.
Each new turn of events ramps up both the suspense and entertainment. And at a breezy eighty-five minutes, the film never threatens to overstay its welcome. An undercurrent of lovingly infused humor runs through it too with one paint-can gag referencing the world’s most popular home invasion film earning well-deserved (albeit guilt-infused) laughs.
Miller and DeJonge both deliver strong, endearing performances as their characters try to protect each other. We buy Luke’s desire to be her hero and Ashley’s responsibility to save the boy, and their efforts leave us smiling, cheering, and concerned.
Better Watch Out is a rarity that pairs immense entertainment with dark, vicious thrills, and my only hope – aside from that it finds as wide an audience as possible – is that viewers get to enjoy its charms unspoiled.