Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager while dealing with a family you don’t quite understand? Even harder. Being a teenager and dealing with an ancient Bengali demon that has whisked away your best friend and feeds on anxiety? Thanks to Bishal Dutta’s directorial debut It Lives Inside, we know exactly how hard that can be.

            It Lives Inside is the story of Samidha (or Sam), a teenage Indian girl struggling to fit in with her white schoolmates, and she’s not having the easiest time. Her mother is determined to raise Sam according to tradition, and while her father is seemingly less rigid on the matter, it’s clear Sam isn’t happy with how things are going. On top of that, her childhood best friend Tamira has become strange and withdrawn, always carrying around a small glass jar with her, falling behind on her schoolwork, and in general just kind of creeping everyone out. When Sam angrily breaks the jar Tamira carries with her, it unleashes a sinister presence that soon begins to prey upon everyone around Sam, and only grows stronger the more terrified and anxious Sam becomes.

            Now, while the overall plot of this film isn’t really anything groundbreaking (think A Nightmare On Elm St meets It) the details of how the narrative relates to the experience of struggling to fit in are refreshing. It’s tragic that Sam hasn’t just forsaken Tamira for the sake of being cool, but she’s also largely tried to erase her heritage as well. The film opens with her shaving her arms, and moments later she leaves the house she gives her jacket a quick sniff, as if to make sure none of the smells from her mother’s cooking have lingered. What makes it doubly sad is that in the eyes of her classmates, Sam is still at best a novelty and at worst the manifestation of “the other”.  This xenophobia doesn’t always appear in hostile ways either. At one point a classmate offhand remarks that she’s jealous of how easy calculus is for Sam, a subtle manifestation of the stereotype that Asian-Americans of all cultures are magically good at math. Sam is also asked to say a phrase in her native Hindi for a Snapchat/TikTok style clip, something she is clearly uncomfortable with especially when the classmate marvels at how different the language is. And after a classmate is brutally murdered suspicion immediately falls on Sam and her family, despite the police insisting it was an animal attack. Sam is, in other words, a true outsider. She isn’t comfortable with her native culture and she is kept at arm’s length by her adopted one. And while this absolutely is likely inspired by Dutta’s own experiences growing up, it’s not a far stretch to see in Sam the experiences of any kid who doesn’t fit in. Replace Sam being Indian with any number of things (being LGBTQ+, being overweight, being neurodivergent, etc.) and the story is still relatable. Dutta deftly taps into a near universal experience for the weirdos out there by framing that experience from one he knows personally: as an Indian American. It’s somehow an incredibly personal film while also feeling like something we’ve all gone through.

            Dutta’s framing of the monster as something that thrives on misery and sadness isn’t just a throwaway plot point. Much like the titular monster in It could easily be seen as symbolic of the self-perpetuating anxiety and depression that affects way too many kids at this point in their lives, Dutta’s bashash feels like a perfect embodiment of the way life feels when you’re a kid going through puberty: the more you think about the things that are bothering you, the more they actually bother you and the more you think about them ad infinitum. Tamira and Sam’s way of dealing with the bashash for much of the film (either literally feeding it or worrying about) just make it stronger until it feels omnipresent and inescapable. It’s a very unpleasant truth about being a kid/teenager.

            A monster movie lives and dies on the design of its monster, and It Lives Inside justifiably lets its creature design shoulder the weight of the climax of this film. While the creature remains Predator-like for most of the film, Dutta expertly uses the expressions of fear from the characters to create a charged sense of expectation that is almost as terrifying as if we saw the creature in the flesh. And in this case the wait is oh so worth it. Dutta’s monster isn’t some gangly limbed, crackly boned, Javier Botet in a suit spooky creature (not that there’s anything wrong with our boy Javier) but instead is something I haven’t really seen done in quite some time. It is a classic monster: clearly a man in a suit but done up in such a way it’s utterly convincing. I was reminded of Rob Bottin’s work in Joe Dante’s segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie: all gaping maw and glaring eyes and jagged teeth. It’s scary in a childish way, like the thing you think is the closet but never actually see.

            Growing up sucks. Growing out of friendships, not fitting in, growing distant from your parents; these are all unpleasant parts of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Bishal Dutta draws from this reservoir of discontent to create an unsettling depiction of the worst that stage of life has to offer. The monster in It Lives Inside is absolutely scary. But the very real depictions of the loneliness and uncertainty and anxiety of adolescence are ultimately far more frightening.