I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to “high concept” films...
...I especially like smaller, independent concept films, as the filmmaker’s have the freedom to think up some really fun and bizarre hooks. To those unfamiliar, a high concept film is a film that contains a sort of gimmick plot or situation that is easily pitched in one or two sentences. These concepts usually find a home in the horror and comedy genres. They’re the kind of films that hook you in from a trailer or even word of mouth. Director Brad T. Gottfred has crafted a very interesting concept film with help from writer Jennifer Wolfe with Confessional. The hook here revolves around a group of young college students being individually questioned about a possible murder in small, claustrophobic rooms. Sounds intriguing to say the least, right? Any clever idea can make a cinephile perk up with curiosity but nurturing that idea with care and evolving it into a great film is another thing entirely.
To further expand on the quite dramatic concept, Confessional stares into the eyes of seven college students who have received an anonymous text message to participate in a confessional event of sorts. Not really knowing what to expect, the students willingly show up, with some even thinking it’s a dumb collegiate joke. Once in their assigned booths, the once care-free students realize the gravity of the situation as they are unable to leave at will. Their only option is to strategically answer questions from a disembodied voice and hope that they are shown mercy for their misdeeds.
Confessional comes off like a student film, and I don’t necessarily mean that in an entirely negative way. With the exception of a few brief shots in separate interiors, all of the film takes place in one small booth. It’s cleverly budgeted, as one booth undoubtedly is used for all seven characters, who are all presented as being in separate booths. Most of the budget seemingly went to the quality of lighting and cameras. Every frame is crisp, clear and framed well and the exceptionally attractive actors are lit professionally. Unfortunately, that’s where most of my praises stops. Everything else in terms of cinematic structure is very amateur. The pacing is all over the place and in a film where the rumor and secret filled story is front and center, the proper dispensing of that information is vital. The events in the story itself is problematic too, because for some reason, there are two mystery murders that are largely unrelated. I feel like had the film focused on one murder, the story would have been more focused. With two, it was easy to become confused with which character was involved in what murder. One may counter that point by claiming the “not knowing” adds suspense, but because of the unnecessarily convoluted plot, any potential for suspense is overshadowed by frustration and confusion.
While I can’t necessarily call it a problem, the acting in Confessional is obtuse. This is tricky to review, because I can see definitive talent in some of these actors. The problem lies in their delivery, lack of restraint and possibly not enough intervention from the director. Each character, especially Noelle (Vanessa Morano) acts as if they are in theater. In other words, they overact and make their lines and gestures much grander than they naturally should be for the given material. Morano is gorgeous and has a strong, commanding presence, which almost makes up for the awkward overacting. I think if she and a few others were to dial back their performances by just a little, the film could at least be an interesting character focused film. None of this makes the film unwatchable, but it’s just one of those things that could have been easily altered, making for a better experience. I will say that the film does pick up a bit in its final act. Once Noelle’s intentions are clearer and her plan is revealed, I was able to enjoy Confessional as a goofy teenage drama, even though it’s sloppy and incredibly implausible.
Confessional is a film that teeters on being truly terrible, but its few (and I mean few) stronger qualities keep it from entering that territory. With a tighter script, adjusted line delivery and a cleaner, more focused plot I think this could have been a cool, indie alternative to a film like Unfriended (2014). It’s just too darn convoluted to be a gratifying high concept film. I do applaud the producers for their budgetary finesse, and I will admit that it was fun as a production nut to nerd out on little budgeting tricks. I do believe Confessional was made by some truly talented people, but unfortunately the final product is an awkward, confusing mess. If you’re looking for your next high concept fix, this may tide you over, but just barely.
Confessional drops on Shudder May 28th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth