The Boy Behind the Door review – child abduction thriller walks a tricky line

Here is an example of a rare phenomenon: a film in which children are the heroes that is not a children’s film on any level. In fact, David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s tightly confined and well-marshalled slasher-thriller walks a fine line: not only does it subject its two tween leads to multiple “scenes of threat”, but – and this is genuinely unusual – it shows tangible bodily harm being inflicted on them with enough frequency to make this a rather dismaying watch. Its best-friends-for-ever message is barely enough to keep the film on the right side of palatable.

Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey) – 12 or 13 years old – are living their best lives, dreaming of California and getting in some baseball practice, when both of them are abducted and bundled into a car boot. Kevin is removed first, leaving Bobby to force his way out; he emerges in the garage of a remote and dingy house. He’s about to run for his life when he remembers their pledge – “Friends until the end” – so he does a 180° turn. Tiptoeing around the evil babysitter holding them hostage, he locates a whimpering Kevin in a locked room on the upper storey.

There is something discreetly radical about making Bobby, who is black, the active and resourceful protagonist in defence of his mixed-race friend. The kidnappers – with a Maga sticker on their car, and whose creepy mansion is surrounded by gothic oil derricks – belong to an older US. As Bobby blends into dark corners and searches for keys, like some child abuse-themed escape room, Charbonier and Powell don’t have too much difficulty keeping tension levels in the red. Logic is sometimes stretched, though: it is surely not plausible that Bobby would try to clean a huge bloodstain in the couple of minutes before he knows he will be interrupted.

The opening half-hour, including the chilling first moments in the house, are filmed with a great emotional clarity. But this lucid style gets subordinated to the pragmatic needs of the cat-and-mouse scenario – to the point where Charbonier and Powell lift/homage The Shining’s most celebrated shot. In the end this is a fundamentally genre-subservient film, staying within the safe lines that absolves it from getting close to the true horrors it hints at.

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