The iPhone is an amazing device. You can use it to take high-quality photos and send them to all of your friends instantly, to listen to music of your choosing for hours on end, to watch entire seasons of your favorite TV shows while you’re running errands around town, to call in sick from work, and other noble pursuits. Yesiree, this one little gadget can do it all, and once you’ve got one, it becomes almost impossible to imagine life without it.
Or so I’m told. Believe it or not, for a guy who contributes to any number of websites (okay, five or six) and maintains his own blog, I’m actually a bit of a technophobe and neither own nor particularly want one of Apple’s little pocket-sized miracles. But when I learned that one of my favorite films of 2015, Sean Baker’s beyond-magnificent Tangerine, was shot entirely by means of a few of these devices, I developed — well, not exactly a newfound respect for them, but definitely a curiosity about their utility as a filmmaking tool. And given that in recent months I’ve been delving ever deeper into so-called “micro-budget” offerings around these parts, sooner or later the obvious question arose in my mind — are there no-money, would-be auteurs out there making feature-length films on their iPhones? As it just so happens, it turns out, of course, that there are.
Meet Justin Doescher, a regular (enough, at any rate, I’m assuming) guy from Baltimore (a town with a long and proud list of DIY movie-makers that includes John Waters, Don Dohler, Pericles Lewnes, and Tony Malnowski, among others) who, earlier in this destined-to-be-blighted year of 2016, cobbled together a script, mastered some basic editing software, got a few friends together to serve as his cast, hit “record” on his electronic best friend’s camera, and cranked out a “found footage” horror number with the less-than-original title of The Break-In, which you can now rent for a couple bucks on Vimeo or, better yet, watch for free if you’ve got an Amazon Prime account. You’ve gotta admire the dude’s gumption, I suppose, but just because literally anybody can be a director these days, does that mean that they should be?
I’m not entirely sure that The Break-In answers that question definitely one way or the other. Hollywood has definitely sunk big money money into films that have less going for them than this one does, there’s no question about that, but you’ve got to be willing to make an enormous number of allowances for the extremely limited number of resources Doescher has at his disposal if you even want to begin to attempt enjoying this thing. I have no problem with meeting it on its own level simply because I’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to watching cheaper-than-cheap shit, but at the same time, I can fully understand why anyone would bail on it after watching for 10 or 15 minutes, simply because it really does look like exactly what it is — and when you think about it, how could it really do otherwise?
The plot’s pretty straightforward, as you’d no doubt expect : ordinary working stiff Jeff Anderson (played by Doescher himself) and his pregnant fiancee, Melissa Joseph (Maggie Binkley) have just become proud new suburbanites after having purchased a “starter” home right next door to their best friends Steve (Juan Veiza) and Lisa (Missy Merry). They’re officially living the dream (if your dream is seriously fucking boring), but it’s not all fun and games on the cul-de-sac — a series of break-ins and home invasions in the area have our lovebirds on edge, and some ominous clues and happenings convince them that the trouble that so far has only afflicted the people close to them will soon be landing squarely on their recently-manufactured doorstep. Isn’t this type of shit only supposed to happen in the inner cities?
One of the stylistic tropes that Doescher leans on heavily is the inclusion of supposed “security camera” footage, and by and large it’s pretty effective and relieves some of the narrative pressure of having to manufacture a reason for Jeff to be recording every damn thing that’s happening. Unfortunately, it also has the unintended consequence of making the standard “mockumentary” scenes stand out as being even more rankly amateur than they otherwise would, a problem that’s only compounded during said sequences by uniformly half-assed acting and frankly wooden and lifeless dialogue — and when you combine all that together, the end result is that a film that’s merely slow often feel downright glacial.
Ya know what, though? If you stick it out, chances are you’ll be glad you did. Doescher manages to ratchet up the tension in a reasonably methodical manner during the second half of his flick’s 72-minute runtime, and there’s a big payoff at the end in the form of a killer plot twist that I think it’s safe to say no one will see coming (I know I certainly didn’t). Sure, it would be nice if getting to this “holy shit!” moment were a more enjoyable experience, but even at its worst — which, admittedly, is pretty bad — The Break-In is still more or less bearable, and it’s at the very least interesting to see Doescher becoming obviously more confident in his new-fangled directorial abilities as he gets into the “teeth” of his story. Yes, this makes for something of a schizoid, day-and-night viewing experience, but heck — at least that’s better than the whole damn thing being lousy from start to finish, right?
Clearly, though, any recommendation that I give here is going to be a heavily-qualified one. The Break-In has numerous problems that are painfully obvious to anyone. It really can only be so good, and it often falls well short of meeting even that exceedingly low bar. But when it does finally put it all together (to the extent that it can), it not only meets the metaphorical bar I was just talking about, it leaps right past it by a country mile. Whether or not it’s worth all the nonsense you have to suffer through in order to have your socks well and truly (and finally) knocked off is a question only you can answer for yourself, of course, and if you read this review and think to yourself “nah, I think I’ll take a pass,” I won’t blame you in the least. But if you decide to give it a go with the full knowledge that you have to be willing to overlook, or at least live with, any number of near-fatal limitations, then rest assured that your opinion of the film will be much higher by the time it’s done than you might expect it to be during its rocky early (and, fair enough, middle) going.