In The Road Within, an attempt to destigmatize mental disorder comes off as patronizing and cloying. In an effort to make her three main characters more relatable to audiences, writer-director Gren Wells presents their joint struggles as a coming-of-age saga. “Doctors eat shit sandwiches on Tuesdays” and “Amy Winehouse sucks my cock” are among the very many vulgar turns of phrase that Vincent (Robert Sheehan), a Tourette’s-stricken teenager whose mother was his primary caregiver up until her untimely death, stammers throughout. Sent to a treatment center by his estranged father (Robert Patrick), Vincent meets Alex (Dev Patel), whose OCD manifests itself in a pathological fear of germs, and the flirty Marie (Zoë Kravitz), an anorexic with a quick wit. Vincent and Alex are slow to become friends (their behavioral issues, volatile enough on their own, are downright explosive when commingled), but Marie helps them along as the trio embarks on a road trip to the ocean, where Vincent plans on spreading his mother’s ashes.
The episodic narrative, a beat-for-beat reproduction of the film’s source material, the 2010 German feature Vincent Wants to Sea, provides an easy setup for a conventional road movie. Each stop on the trek delivers new obstacles to overcome, most of which require our heroes to figure out how to simply get along. Wells reflects the characters’ turbulent relations with gratuitously jerky handheld camerawork, a suitably chaotic approach to a story that’s partly about hostile personalities in close quarters. Indeed, The Road Within has a more psychologically edgy nature than the glossy, quaint Vincent Wants to Sea, but the overall themes and characterizations remain just as bland and hackneyed. As the title makes bluntly clear, the dysfunctional characters aren’t on a mere road trip, but on a deeper, more personal journey that provides familiar lessons about being less selfish and more open to others.
The film’s tired sentimentality aside, its general lack of empathy is most damning. Vincent’s belligerent twitches and crude outbursts are meant to be funny or heartbreaking, depending on the scene, and Marie’s eating disorder only factors in when Wells needs to raise the stakes during the melodramatic denouement; otherwise, she’s little more than an object of romantic competition for her male counterparts. It’s this treatment of the characters and their neuroses as narrative props that effectively negates The Road Within’s themes of acceptance and understanding.