Dark comedy is a tricky balance, but for the most part, writer/director Maria Bissell pulls it off in her feature film debut, How to Deter a Robber, a coming-of-age caper based around home invasion that creates genuine laughs in spite of a wobbly third act.
Bissell sets up believable tension and a comedic chain of events as college-bound Madison (Vanessa Marano, Saving Zoë and Switched at Birth) and her boyfriend, Jimmy (Benjamin Papac, Greenhouse Academy), spend Christmas with her family in their lakeside vacation home. Madison works on her college application essay, but her writing is full of melodrama, and the opening scenes crackle as she finds herself the brunt of her family’s jokes, especially from her mother (Gabrielle Carteris).
When Madison thinks she sees a light on in a neighbor’s empty cottage, she convinces Jimmy to check it out for some quiet time together. The two get drunk and stoned and hold a séance, collapsing into sleep while two burglars strike the property. Madison calls the cops, thinking she’s being responsible, only to have the police accuse her and Jimmy of the break-in.
In these early moments, How to Deter a Robber has both dialogue and performances that teeter on the absurd. Carteris, whom some viewers will remember as brainy teen Andrea from Beverly Hills, 90210 in the 1990s, particularly seems to relish playing a know-it-all mom with “advice” that her daughter doesn’t want to hear.
She’s right about Madison not thinking of consequences, which becomes obvious when the teens rig the family’s home with bubble wrap and other traps to catch the real burglars, a la Home Alone. Let’s just say that the traps that worked for young Macaulay Culkin aren’t as effective this time around.
The film takes a menacing turn when Madison, Jimmy, and Madison’s Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey, Castle Rock) encounter the real burglars, a boyfriend and girlfriend scoping out vacant vacation homes. Christine (Abby Cobb, Them) is almost too sweet and dim, trying to be kind to their captives. However, her boyfriend, Patrick (Sonny Valicenti, Mindhunter), is sincerely threatening, causing a shift in tone and stakes that saps the film’s comedy. It’s enough of a twist to give How to Deter a Robber a shaky resolution.