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There’s something inherently bullying in much of the self-help movement. Think about it. Most “inspirational” speakers and self-help gurus work from a position of dominance, emphasizing how much is wrong with your life that needs to be fixed. And, of course, they’re the best ones to fix it. Part of the concept of finding the “real you” is that the “current you” kinda sucks. Sophia Takal’s smart “New Year, New You,” the latest entry in Hulu & Blumhouse’s series of monthly original horror films is at its best when it interrogates how self-help and other-hurt intertwine, and also offers some insight into the insidious awfulness of influencer culture. The first two installments of “Into the Dark” (“The Body” and “Flesh & Blood”) were frustrating messes, but if they keep turning these over to voices like Nacho Vigalondo and Sophia Takal, people are going to start paying attention.
The actress/writer/director returns to territory she explored in her excellent “Always Shine,” a film that Sheila O’Malley argued examined “the murky powerful undertows beneath female friendship.” Each installment of “Into the Dark” is centered on the month’s holiday and this is technically the January offering, so it’s time for a New Year’s party! Alexis (Suki Waterhouse), Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) have watched one of the mean girls they knew in high school become incredibly popular as a viral sensation. When Danielle (Carly Chaikin) drinks a juice drink, it becomes famous. When she goes dairy free, others do too. The problem is that her old friends know that Danielle is kind of awful—she may have even bullied a girl into committing suicide when they were younger. And Alexis wants to teach Danielle a lesson to start the new year.
Of course, “New Year, New You” wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t some gray areas of morality in which to play. Is Danielle really a bully? Or could Alexis just be a jealous psychopath? There are numerous hints that Alexis is mentally unstable—Takal and Waterhouse go back to the well of Alexis staring oddly at herself in the mirror a couple too many times—and “New Year, New You” is at its best when it keeps you uncertain of the preferred outcome. Is Alexis the villain? Or is Danielle? Is Alexis not allowing a former bully to rehabilitate herself and now use her powers for good? And could Alexis really just want to be Danielle as much as anything else? Or had Danielle just found a new way to channel her need to bully?
Waterhouse can’t quite express the complexity of this part—I kept thinking how great “Shine”’s Davis would have been in it—but Carly Chaikin is fantastic. She nails the vapid self-importance of someone who thinks they are not just promoting better living but literally curing their followers. It’s that tone in which someone sounds like they’re patronizing but they’re not even consciously doing so—they’re just always ON. She says things like “I’m so proud of who you’ve become,” reminding you that who you were sucked. And yet she has been doing this “routine” for so long that it’s just her. She’s not putting on a fake and shallow 'character'—this is as deep as she gets. Chaikin gives the best performance in the series so far.
Sadly, like so many independent horror movies, the climax of “New Year, New You” falters. It’s clunky both in concept and execution, and then followed by a cheap stinger that will make the film dissipate from memory more quickly than if it had really landed its punch. Still, given how January is the month when studios dump awful horror movies they couldn’t get out before awards season, this isn’t a bad way for genre nuts to start the new year.