Director Amy Redford presents her second film, What Comes Around, as a relationship thriller but murky and awkward storytelling makes the film fall flat despite the best efforts of its star Grace Van Dien.
Previously titled Roost when it hit the festival circuit last fall, the movie opens with teenager Anna (Van Dien) as she entertains a secret online relationship with the nearly 30-year-old Eric (Kyle Gallner). But age is just a number for these two who bonded on an online poetry message board and if that digital meet-cute wasn’t cringe-worthy enough, Eric compares Anna and her writing to that of Emily Dickinson. Already veering into skeevy territory, Eric takes things a drastic step further by showing up on Anna’s doorstep to surprise her on the morning of her 17th birthday. Now, before this turns into a run-of-the-mill episode of Law & Order: SVU, writer Scott Organ adds another deeply unsettling layer to the mix that’s full of ick.
When Anna’s mother Beth (Summer Phoenix) discovers their relationship, she forbids the two to continue seeing each other. When she eventually meets Eric, her disapproval of him goes well beyond just their age differences as Beth’s past secrets come to light.
An awkward story of cyclical abuse and predatory behaviour, What Comes Around feels like a chore to watch. Organ has peppered the story with what he intends to be twists and thrills but each one falls flat. Adapted from Organ’s play, it’s more of an overwrought melodrama best suited as a Lifetime made-for-TV movie than the thriller about grooming it wants to be. Unfortunately for the cast and Redford, nothing in this story feels fresh or interesting. It is an intentionally uncomfortable story, but it is made all the more awkward and unenjoyable through its clunky staging and performances.
Van Dien and Gallner give it their all — sometimes too much — in an attempt to emerge out of the black hole of a script. Gallner varies between over-the-top melodramatic and almost too low-key in his portrayal of Eric. Phoenix is either miscast or simply doesn’t know what to do with Beth resulting in an on-screen presence that feels self-conscious and insecure. The only cast member who doesn’t feel misplaced is Van Dien as she portrays Anna with true teenage naivety and insecurity. Despite being almost absent from the latter half of the film as the story moves in new directions, Van Dien makes Anna the most exciting part of What Comes Around and is the sole reason to seek this film out.
Having first seen this film at TIFF last year, the odd storytelling and stylistic choices of What Comes Around seem to stand out even more upon a second viewing. Much like the performances, Redford’s direction feels shaky and uneven. Overall, this drama feels like a short film stretched out to feature length without enough depth to warrant the additional runtime.