Producers: Jared Sprouse, Ty Simpkins, Paolo Bobadilla and Justin Boswick   Director: John Mathis   Screenplay: John Mathis   Cast: Ty Simpkins, Anneliese Judge, Skyler Elyse Philpot, Kathy Searle, Joseph Gray, Nick Basta, Nic Brown and Matias De La Flor   Distributor: TriCoast Worldwide

Grade: B-

Here’s a little movie with something on its mind, and though it’s hobbled by an obviously low budget and some amateurish acting, it still casts an uncanny spell.

Though marketed as a horror film, “Where’s Rose” begins as a straightforward thriller involving an apparently happy middle-class suburban family, the Daniels.  Nate (Nick Basta) and Mary (Kathy Searle) have two children.  The older is Eric (Ty Simpkins), a high school football star who’s getting ready to go off to college on a scholarship.  He’s apparently devoted to his little sister Rose (Skyler Elyse Philpot), and she idolizes him; the thought of his leaving sends her running into the woods, where she appears to have an imaginary friend with whom she discusses her favorite book about a dreaming girl. But Eric assures her he’ll always protect her and will just be a phone call away.

Then suddenly Rose disappears after being babysat by teen neighbor Jessica (Anneliese Judge).  She’s soon found, but although Mary and Nate don’t notice any change, to Ty she seems a very different person, perhaps possessed by some evil force from the forest.  Her accusatory manne when they’re alone makes him both anxious and belligerent, and leads to his having a traffic accident after leaving a party–a rare crack in his facade.

That appearance, however, has been deceptive, because there’s been something off about Eric from the start.  Though apparently a straight-arrow, all-American jock, he spends much of his time jogging along the local roads, listening to an oddly Nietzschean (or perhaps Objectivist) motivational tape called “Your Journey” telling him, in soothing tones, that he can do anything he wants and urging him to be the man he’s destined to be.  And his libido seems to have gone into overdrive—he lustfully eyes the sexiest coeds at that party before his accident.  Meanwhile introverted Jessica, with whom he’d previously been close, has turned distinctly cold toward him.  Why?

The answers are provided in the last act.  There’s a bit of the supernatural–or perhaps something hallucinatory–involved as the beast that Eric believes is inhabiting Rose appears and forces him to confront the past actions that haunt his subconscious.  But the underlying explanation is a more mundane one, centering on the damage that arises when the process of maturation takes a perverse turn and dangerous impulses go unchecked.  What begins as a missing-person mystery becomes a psychological study of a troubled young man’s descent into violence.  A supernatural element may be present, but the true horror is purely human.

Simpkins, who’s grown up since the days of “Insidious” and “Jurassic World,” gives a committed performance as Eric, managing to shift pretty convincingly from the tight-lipped “good boy” mode he sticks to with his parents and other adults to a more liberated one when cavorting with his teammates (Nic Brown and Matias De La Flor) and, finally, to explosions of rage and terror he feels when dealing with his emotional drives and what they’ve led him to do.  Philpot also demonstrates range, playing Rose as sweet-tempered in the early going but shifting to a more sinister vibe in her later scenes with suspicious Eric.  Otherwise the acting leaves something to be desired.  Jessica is meant to be an opaque character, but in Judge’s hands she seems merely stiff until the character’s own turmoil finally rushes out; the rest of the cast manage barely professional-level turns.

The technical side suffers from obvious budgetary limitations but is nonetheless mostly effective.  Though Tyler Holender’s production design is nondescript, Eric Gesualdo’s cinematography is respectable enough despite some ungainly hand-held work and murkiness in night scenes, and editor Barrett Jay manages to move things along efficiently, with a few effective flashback montages toward the close.  The practical visual effects at the end aren’t great, but at least they avoid risibility, and Jason Obermeier contributes a varied score that generates some chills on its own.

What sets “Where’s Rose” apart from most horror fare is its ambition, and though flawed, it manages to treat a serious theme using some familiar genre tropes.