Neon Lights opens with Clay Amani (Dana Abraham), CEO of hot tech company Tempest Technology being reassured by Denver (Kim Coates, See For Me, Sons of Anarchy) that he can handle an upcoming interview. As it turns out he can’t and has an on-camera meltdown that puts the company’s IPO in jeopardy.
After a session with his therapist Dr. Laila Mori (Brenna Coates, Cagefighter, Coroner) he decides there’s only one way to get himself under control. He vanishes to an off-the-grid house. But rather than spend the time in solitude or with a few close friends he decides this would be the perfect time to try to reconnect with estranged family members. That sounds like a way to add to one’s stress rather than calm it but to each their own.
The family, his brother James (Stephen Tracey, The Expanse, Anne with an E), his other brother Benny (René Escobar Jr., Heart of the Holidays), his wife Clarissa (Brit MacRae, The Eden Theory, The Game), and their daughter Blair (Erika Swayze, Workin’ Moms), arrive and things quickly start to get complicated.
Director Rouzbeh Heydari (Together Again, Cypher), co-writer Dana Abraham and story editor Nikolas Benn (Bedtime Stories for Men) set themselves some ambitious goals when they wrote Neon Lights’ script. The film wants to be a drama about mental health, a family drama, a psychological thriller, and a slasher. Unfortunately, despite a prologue that strongly hints toward one of the themes, the film never really decides which of the four is the dominant plot thread.
As a result, Neon Lights cycles through various ideas and issues but never really manages to gain any traction. Even once people start disappearing it refuses to fully commit itself to being a genre film until late in the game. And by that time it’s really too late to matter.
And not going all in sooner is a big mistake because it’s fairly obvious what’s going on and how Neon Lights’ plot is going to play out. The characters are too familiar and obvious for the viewer not to at least have a very good idea of how they’ll react. Though for the most part, they’re too unlikeable to really care about. There’s really no reason why with one possible exception, he would want them around at the best of times let alone while he was under stress.
Kim Coates has said in interviews that the real nature of Denver would be a shock when it’s revealed. And I will say at first I was on the wrong track about him. But by Neon Lights’ halfway point I had it figured out. That may be due to my fondness for a certain film from the 90s, which I won’t name for obvious reasons, so it may indeed come as a surprise to other viewers.
From a technical standpoint, however, Neon Lights is a well-done movie. The various neon hues the house is lit in are beautiful and cinematographer Dmitry Lopatin makes great use of it. He also gets a lot of mileage out of the estate the film was shot on. Combined with Josh Skerritt’s score and sound design by Blag Ahilov (Eli Roth Presents: A Ghost Ruined My Life, Dino Dana) it does give the film some effective moments.
Unfortunately, while most of the cast is solid, and Coates is, as usual, excellent, Abraham frequently misses the mark when trying to express Clay’s more intense emotions, such as after a tennis match turned violent. Rather than a grown man cracking under pressure, he looks like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum.
In the end, Neon Lights is a very disappointing waste of potential. With a more focused script and a stronger performance in the lead role, this could have been a tense thriller that managed to relay its intended message. Instead, it’s a bit of a mess with an occasional effective scene.