Damon Thomas’ adaptation of Grady Hendrix’s Quirk Books novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism is young adult horror that leans heavier on “young adult” than theological “horror.” With exorcism in the title, all the subgenre expectations of spew sessions and possession outbursts are there — but forever as a gateway presentation. There’s nothing outright scary à la The Exorcist, as teleplay writer Jenna Lamia focuses on 1980s nostalgia references that soften friendships run afoul by the devil. My Best Friend’s Exorcism pulls its punches and relies heavily on digital effects even for puked drenchings, but nonetheless tells an easy-streaming story that lets teenage girls command the screen in a once primarily male-driven field.
Abby Rivers (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen Lang (Amiah Miller) are your average religious school besties. Together with Margaret Chisolm (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee Tanaka (Cathy Ang), they’re a well-rounded girl gang of on-screen stereotypes from Abby’s self-conscious acne masking to Margaret’s flaunting of PDA as the only member with a boyfriend. One night at Margaret’s lake house, they all ingest LSD and Gretchen disappears inside a supposedly haunted cabin. Abby fears her inseparable sister for life isn’t herself anymore after Gretchen starts acting differently, and that’s when a rift stemming from Gretchen’s newfound bad attitude drives the four friends apart. Was Gretchen’s disappearance just a bad trip? Or is something evil behind her personality makeover?
My Best Friend’s Exorcism drenches audiences in ‘80s references early, from A-ha soundtrack beats to teen magazine friendship quizzes, distinctive Diet Pepsi cans – the works. The dialogue loves to keep reminding us of the cultural period, like hairstyles and synthwave score choices weren’t a giveaway. It’s an era when kids were more independent, given that Abby’s father never leaves his recliner and Gretchen’s more Reagan-era parents care more about an illegal acid tablet than their daughter’s well-being. Thomas has enough command over the ‘80s environments where it never feels too schticky, yet references can be a tad piled-on when attempting too hard to turn back time.
The dynamic between all four girls tracks insecurities, power struggles, and maturation with enough relatability. Abby and Gretchen go from signing off phone calls with “LYLAS” (Love You Like A Sister) to embarrassing one another publicly, and you can feel the breakneck discomfort. My Best Friend’s Exorcism highlights such an awkward phase in anyone’s life when popularity can turn us into backstabbing, jealous, ego-driven monsters. High school changes people; we grow into our bodies and allow hormones to take the wheel, which a demonic possession metaphor slyly puts into perspective. The leading quartet of actors sell their arguments as well as their reconciliations, navigating a sea of horndog classmates and God’s constant judgment with an emphasis on prudish nun-enforced school rules as a contrast to the damned horrors that surface.
Unfortunately, exorcism elements aren’t raising any hairs nor unleashing mayhem hellscapes. Most of the real possession action doesn’t come until the finale, which means a longer stretch of Gretchen running loose, causing possibly fatal mischief. There’s not much opportunity for special effects when preying upon someone’s peanut allergies, although Gretchen’s other sneaky assassination attempt does have a fun moment when the victim’s pooch attacks a computerized creature wriggling out the victim’s mouth. Another spot towards the end relies on the same pixelation when confronting Gretchen’s unholy invader, which is a slight letdown. Much of My Best Friend’s Exorcism depends on Gretchen looking ghostly pale, with her lip flaking to denote bodily rot while using lies to spread hatred or her beauty to spur temptation. There’s not much by way of nightmarish exorcism imagery, mainly because there’s nothing particularly ambitious about the horror glimpses we’re shown.
That said, Thomas ensures a proper balance between entertainment, demonic banishment, and naive soul searching. Christopher Lowell’s portrayal of rookie exorcist Christian Lemon — one-third of a Jesus-worshipping bodybuilder trio that gives inspirational mall and school presentations — brings a comedic goofiness that humorously juxtaposes against Elsie Fisher’s gawking straight face. There’s also a thoughtful subplot about Abby believing Gretchen’s been raped in the woods, which leads to teaching others about PTSD signs — an evergreen lesson as her concerns go unheard. Thomas directs a comedy first and foremost but still retains the importance behind both sillier elements that cause intermittent chuckles along with representative storytelling that speaks to younger demographics.
What starts out as a fun night of skinny dipping quickly turns scary for high school sophomores Abby and Gretchen. Gretchen begins acting strangely and weird incidents begin happening. Is Gretchen really possessed by a demon?!