Directed by: #AustinSmagalski
It is clear from the off that not all is as it seems in Donovan Reid – the psychological thriller from director Austin Smagalski. Films with the premise of a central mystery usually experience the same challenges. Are audiences going to be bothered enough to re-watch once the truth is uncovered? Does the reveal create plot-holes, or lead to more questions than answers? And could all the confusion have been cleared up with a simple phone call, or by recalling some key info?
A young man (Weston Lee Ball) arrives at a police station claiming to be a missing child – Donovan Reid. An initially suspicious detective (Mike Schaeffer) introduces him to Donovan’s family. Donovan’s father Hank (Anthony Martinez) embraces him - convinced he has found his long-lost son - but his mother Linda (Lydia Revelos) is doubtful. We learn that ‘Donovan’ is actually Michael – a traumatised young man who has escaped an abusive home. But as he tries to hide his true identity from the law and Donovan’s parents, he begins to discover that the Reids are hiding a secret themselves.
The cast carry Donovan Reid, providing strong performances – if a little clichéd at times. Weston Lee Ball is appropriately enigmatic as Michael/Donovan – echoing Rami Malek’s Elliot from Mr. Robot in how inapposite he appears in his new home. Anthony Martinez gives a devastating performance as Hank – still bearing the scars of losing his son and devastatingly unable to understand why he cannot connect to ‘Donovan’ once he has returned. There are moments in which the film descends into melodrama – unfortunately coinciding with some of the most pivotal scenes. Each cast member has their slips at times – but these are forgivable given the overall quality of the performances.
The story is intriguing and gripping upon first viewing. The film balances twists and reveals well without becoming outlandish. But a healthy suspension of disbelief is required in retrospect, and the film does not do enough legwork to believably convince that some characters would not have information at hand that would resolve the central mystery of the film within minutes. The double-mystery dynamic – of the viewers following Michael’s efforts to uncover a secret whilst the rest of the characters try to uncover his – feels fresh and exhilarating. But the payoff could have been stronger.
Creative filming works wonderfully to the story's advantage and demonstrates Austin Smagalski’s promise as a director. Edits between Michael’s past life as a prisoner in his former home, and his new life hiding his own identity are consistently used to draw parallels between the dueling mysteries at the films core. The viewers feel Michael’s unease as he investigates the Reids’ home, and feel the growing pressure as their suspicions over him arise in turn. The film makes the most of its short 84-minute runtime, and allows time for characters to breath and grow before cascading into the big reveals.
Donovan Reid is a psychological thriller that keeps audiences on edge with a strong intertwining of past and present events. The story could have been tighter, with a few glaring plot holes left unattended to. However the central premise is well explored, and strong performances and slick storytelling from the director leave the audience eager to spot missing clues on a second watch.