[In theaters and Video on Demand.] ••• It suffers a bit in the execution, but conceptually, “Better Watch Out” (originally titled “Safe Neighborhood”) is the best twist on the “home invasion” thriller that the sub-genre has seen in a while, a consistently surprising story with more than one jaw-dropping moment.
And the execution isn’t bad, either, just clunky at times, with some weak dialogue and an unconvincing performance in a crucial role. Writer-director Chris Peckover, last seen stirring up trouble with the brutal “Undocumented,” certainly has his fiendish head in the right place, and the new film allows for more levity than the last one did while still being pitch-black in its sensibilities.
Set at Christmastime so that someone can eventually be tied to a chair with a string of festive lights (an irresistible image for a provocateur like Peckover), “Better Watch Out” stars Olivia DeJonge as Ashley, a beautiful babysitter charged with tending almost-13-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) while his bitter parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) go to a party. Luke, mature for his age, doesn’t think he needs a sitter. Moreover, he has a crush on Ashley and sees tonight as his last chance to profess his love before she goes off to college. Luke is encouraged in his delusions by his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), who fits the mold of the good kid’s troublemaking, kissing-up-to-the-parents sidekick.
While Luke is putting the moves on Ashley (who’s preoccupied with her own stormy love life) and Garrett is playing video games upstairs, someone is lurking outside — or maybe inside? — the house. The intruder manifests in the usual ways: a creak here, an open door there. Soon there’s no question about it. Something deadly is afoot.
And that’s all you’ll get out of me, plotwise. With the basic elements in place — babysitter with boyfriend problems, lovelorn adolescent, comic-relief friend, an empty house — Peckover plays the music as written for a while before veering off into his own clever variations. The girl-in-peril scenario comes to involve issues of masculinity and entitlement, played for laughs that grow darker as the action progresses. Like his characters, Peckover makes some questionable choices that he doesn’t seem to realize are questionable. (For example, the parents are given vivid personalities, then dismissed from the film.) But he refrains from showing the graphic, gory details — a sign of restraint.
Olivia DeJonge is stellar as the beleaguered babysitter, vividly playing a range of emotions as her fortunes change throughout the night. Unfortunately (and you hate to lay a lot of blame on a kid), Levi Miller’s performance as Luke is a great hindrance. It’s a tricky role anyway, with a lot of intensity and layers to it, and Miller (who played Peter in the 2015 Hugh Jackman film “Pan”) isn’t up to the task. Still, the film’s ingenious plotting and wicked sense of humor shine through.
B- (1 hr., 25 min.; )