DEAR DAVID movie poster | ©2023 Lionsgate

DEAR DAVID movie poster | ©2023 Lionsgate

Rating: R
Stars: Augustus Prew, Andrea Bang, René Escobar Jr., Cameron Nicoll, Justin Long
Writer: Mike van Waes, story by Mike van Waes & Evan Turner
Director: John McPhail
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: October 13, 2023

DEAR DAVID opens with a supertitle: “In 2017 Adam Ellis began documenting a series of strange experiences that were happening in his apartment. He posted them on Twitter and these ‘Dear David’ posts became a viral sensation. The following is based on those true events.”

The thread, with Ellis’s illustrations (which appear in the film), was published in the online magazine Buzzfeed (one of DEAR DAVID’s credited production companies). It is readily available online for those who wish to do research into how much the film does or doesn’t jibe with its source material.

A prologue deposits us in 1996 New York City, when the Internet was fairly new for popular usage. Little boy David (Cameron Nicoll) can’t get enough of chat boards, even though he’s bullied. David’s dad Fred (David Tompa) thinks that it’s great his son is so interested in this device of the future, while mom Linda (Rachel Wilson) thinks the kid spends too much time with it.

Cut to 2017 New York City. Adam (played here by Augustus Prew) is plying his cartooning craft at Buzzfeed. Adam has an outsized reaction to Internet trolls, trolling them right back, and his peppy editor Bryce (Justin Long) is pressuring him to come up with something new.

Otherwise, all seems well. Adam has a loving boyfriend, Kyle (René Escobar Jr.), an office bestie, Evelyn (Andrea Bang), his dream job, a great apartment, and even two adorable cats.

But something is off. A empty rocking chair starts rocking itself in Adam’s apartment. The cats start reacting to certain spaces in odd ways. Messages start showing up from “David.” And then Adam starts seeing the boy David we have met, who appears with part of his head caved in.

The screenplay by Mike van Waes, from the story devised by van Waes & Evan Turner, is firmly on the side of something supernatural. Early on, we see an incident that Adam reads about after the fact, but it’s presented as something that actually happens.

This raises the stakes at once. Other filmmakers might want to play with whether or not Adam is having some sort of breakdown, but that’s not what the writers and director John McPhail are going for with DEAR DAVID. They are opt for full-on scare show.

There’s just enough electronic weirdness going on, with untraceable online personas, abruptly changing computer screens, and other phenomena, to keep DEAR DAVID grounded in real-world unease. For the punchier bits, we get nightmares and a very angry ghost.

The recurring shot of David from behind at his monitor is so like the classic image of Heather O’Rourke in front of the TV from 1982’s POLTERGEIST that it’s clearly intentional. This visual is obviously powerful or else it wouldn’t be so resonant, but the two films aren’t so similar that an acknowledgement is required, and it’s perhaps unwise and certainly distracting to prompt viewers to make comparisons. (Speaking of distractions, spoiler for animal lovers: Adam’s cats come through fine.)

There’s plot logic as to why Adam may have been targeted, along with a well-paced reveal of David’s back story. We also get steady hints as to exactly what invites David’s wrath, so there’s a propulsive mystery driving what Adam does. It helps that we’re also fairly engaged with Adam’s interactions at work and with friends.

There are jokes within the film about how Adam’s output is supposed to be “relatable,” but indeed, that’s the term that best suits Prew’s performance as Adam. He can be self-absorbed and irritable, but he’s so human in his bewilderment, curiosity and fear that we’re always on his side. Bang sparkles as his concerned pal Evelyn, Escobar conveys warmth and intelligence as Kyle, and Tricia Black adds texture as a well-meaning Buzzfeed listicle writer. Long is excellent as Adam’s boss, who thinks his newly-famous employee is cleverly inventing the whole David tale, and Nicoll expertly embodies innocence and malice by turns as David.

DEAR DAVID doesn’t have the impact of novelty, but it takes itself seriously enough and is skillful enough to be a satisfying paranormal chiller.

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