At a Cinequest years ago, I sat at a hotel bar with a director who specialized in interactive theater. He told me he thought it was the future — that live plays where the audience just sits and watches will become an elitist behavior, like (presumably) opera. I nodded. There’s a place for it, certainly, I thought. And we went our separate ways in the cold March San Jose night.
Interactive theater may not have taken hold as quickly as that director predicted, but escape rooms sure seem to have. So of course it makes a pretty good plot driver — what if you’re trapped in both? People being what they are, they’d embrace it willingly, and when Rich (Richard Follin) finds an invitation in his pocket just before Thanksgiving weekend, it’s a great excuse for him and his college friends (all making their film debuts) to have one last big ridiculous adventure before graduation.
But it’s a bit disturbing how all three of his friends willingly cancel their previous plans, and “The Show” they’re being welcomed to seems to have no boundaries. Each is given a secret set of instructions, then loaded into a limousine by a too happy and too touch blonde driver (writer/director Dorie Barton). Blind-folded and dumped in a completely empty suburban neighborhood, it’s less than theater and more… time to find themselves.
Welcome to the Show has a pretty good conceit, and is well-shot, emphasizing an almost unbelievable emptiness outside a college town even for a holiday weekend. It gets eerie, and when the four friends encounter other people, it’s purposefully hard for them and us to decide who’s in on the show and who just happens to live in the environment. They do have a couple of memorable encounters, one in a house full of people their age who would have fit just as well in the 1960s as the 2020s, and each time they encounter another “audience” team, the movie gains life. But in between it has the feel of loose improvisation where the film cast didn’t know what was going on themselves, though each at least has a strong characterization. To emphasize the wonderland, they just seem to wander.
Of course dark secrets are harbored, and the point of the Show is for these rootless people to find themselves. But Welcome to the Show, for all its charms, just sort of meanders. It could have done with some tightening and a little more actual show. There’s just not quite enough fun in the escape.
Welcome to the Show streams at Cinequest March 20 through March 30. Tickets are 3.99, available at creatics.org/cinejoy/.