‘It’s What’s Inside’ Review: Instagram Beauty Standards Are the Real Villain of This Breakout Sundance Horror Hit

As social media has taken over all of our lives, there’s a lot of room for new and unique insecurities to develop. Why don’t I look perfect when I’m exercising? Why can’t I get my hair to do that? How can I compete when my boyfriend is lusting after Instagram girls? And the most mortifying of them all: How do I get more followers? The beautiful but unconfident Shelby (Brittany O’Grady) has all of these concerns and couldn’t hide it if she tried. Her boyfriend Cyrus (James Morosini) seems bored with her. They aren’t having sex anymore and Shelby secretly wonders if it’s because he’s still into his college crush, the blonde Instagram influencer Nikki (Alycia Debnam-Carey).

In the early moments of the film, Shelby hides in the bathroom placing a straight haired wig over her long black kinky curls. Though it’s never overtly addressed, Shelby is biracial and clearly feels intimidated by Cyrus’s preference for Eurocentric beauty standards. Unbeknownst to her, he has open porn tabs on his laptop and barely registers her presence. This tension continues as the couple makes their way to a party with all their old college friends. Reuben (Devon Terrell) is getting married in the morning to the beautiful Sophia (Ali Nordlie) and tonight is his last as a single man. But instead of a traditional bachelor party, he’s assembled all of his friends for a wild night in the lavish home of his deceased artist mother.

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Her sculpture — which is on display in the background of the film — is a provocative recreation of the clitoris. It’s an interesting detail in a film that isn’t as much about sex as it is about identity and performance. Reuben is handsome and well-off about to begin an Instagram-ready marriage. His friend Dennis (Gavin Leatherwood) is the rich party-boy, living off his trust fund. Maya (Nina Bloomgarden) is the chill bohemian type with big hair and a small waistline. Brooke (Reina Hardesty) is an adventurous artist. And then there’s Nikki, the object of Shelby’s envy. As the night progresses it becomes clear that Nikki was Cyrus’s first choice and Shelby was the second option. And though he denies it, hos eyes are insincere. He’s more shallow than he would like her to believe. But the quiet Shelby is perceptive enough to know something isn’t right.

A bunch of friends all staying in a house is a set-up that we’ve seen before — most recently in A24’s “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and the British dark comedy “All My Friends Hate Me.” Like many groups of young friends friends onscreen, their interactions are tinged with a palpable sense of irony and detachment. Honest displays of emotion are few and far between as the friends party, renew old grudges and take substances. All the while, the shrinking violet Shelby looks on anxiously, unable to fully let loose. But once their mysterious old friend Forbes (David Thompson) arrives with a suitcase that contains a very special game, all the underlying tensions are brought to the surface.

To say much more about the suitcase or what’s inside would ruin the film’s biggest and most impressive twist, that leads to more mayhem than anyone could have anticipated. It’s the kind of horror comedy that was made to play to an audience, with twists and turns that keep us guessing. By the third act of the film it’s hard to know if anyone is who they say they are and make it out with their lives intact. Everyone wants to know how the other half lives, but “It’s What’s Inside” takes things a step further by exposing the nastiness and jealousy that prevents us from fully relating to each other. It’s a loud, colorful, frantic and pitch black horror comedy about identity that mercilessly critiques modern anxiety about desirability and success.

Grade: B

“It’s What’s Inside” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Netflix.

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