It Lives Inside has at its center the archetypal push-pull between assimilation and the tension it posits to all rooted belongings. The protagonist, Samidha, aka Sam (Megan Suri), lives in an idyllic American suburb with her Indian family, comprising her restlessly conservative mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), and father, Inesh (Vik Sahay), who has taken after the western ways. Sam has to bear the brunt of her mother’s desperate insistence to uphold her Indian heritage. Poorna urges Sam that she make the Puja prasad. Sam is miffed and unwilling. She’s all keen to cohere and blend into the normative American-ness.
At school, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), formerly her best friend, hangs phantom-like in the shadows, creeping around. Tamira’s behavior, which has relegated her to being slotted as the weird Indian, has distanced Sam, who would rather not be seen in a similar racist gaze, even if that requires her to consciously and publicly erase her Indian-ness as much as she can. Sam’s overt impulse of deracinating herself to get accepted at school and not be a butt of ridicule makes her mother anxious and redoubles her efforts at keeping Sam bound to her roots. This tension generates horror in the film.
When Tam comes to Sam asking for help, sharing her fears about a seeming monster trapped in the jar she carries everywhere, a disbelieving, agitated Sam accidentally drops the jar. All hell is unleashed thereon. Tamira disappears but leaves behind a journal, which Sam recovers. The journal is filled with numbers and lettering, and Sam realizes it used to belong to one of her neighbors’ sons, Karan, who died in a fire. Soon the nature of his death is also questioned.
The film interposes the immigrant experience, replete with its emotions of exclusion-paranoia, and peppers it with half-baked generic twists, drawing from Asian mythology. It is not exactly an inspired conceit, and director Bishal Dutta leans too heavily on the messaging, which is further exacerbated by the unimaginative handling of horror.
Dutta, who has also co-written the film along with Ashish Mehta, approaches the film’s hot-button appeals of cultural diversity and forgets to cover the slits in the linings. Therefore, a lot of the film, especially pivotal scenes between the mother and daughter that are primed as the emotional, thematic fulcrum of the film, comes off as stagey and contrived in dialogue and performance.
Crucially, the film’s understanding of the anxieties around cultural assimilation and its implications for Asian Americans feels dated and entirely couched in lazy writing that is incapable of wrangling out drama from the primary mother-daughter conflict. The dialogues are stiff, veering to tell more than show. Dutta does not flesh out either the mother or the daughter or Sam’s relationship with Tamira, which is said to have been her oldest friendship.
As a result, Sam’s investment in Tamira does not earn our interest. We simply do not care enough for the missing Tamira. The urgency also feels peculiarly absent, but abruptly, the climax jolts her back into the narrative, by which time the viewer would have already emotionally checked out of the film. Sam also gets a boyfriend and a teacher, both very supportive and interested in her. Both are flaky and wholly forgettable.
But perhaps the worst offender is the utterly vapid horror set-pieces. The myth of a flesh-eating demon receives as unsubtle a treatment as imaginable, being threaded into depression. The source of horror starts out as interestingly vague in form, fleeting in appearance, and not something very tangible, but ultimately concedes to being yet another iteration of gnarly creature horror.
There is also the immigrant guilt of abandonment of their loved ones back home, which the film hammers across via Poorna. The mythical interjection is unpersuasive at best, and the Karan track should have carried more heft, along with the journal that honestly strikes as a lazy, scrambling design. Due to its sketchiness, this significantly hampers the film, as the central origin itself is so thoughtlessly dispensed with. The film feels increasingly diluted and personality-free as it gradually distends itself from the settings and characters it is loudly projecting, slipping into head-scratching dullness.