THE STORY – Troubles arise between a mother and daughter, once the daughter is seduced online by an older man.
THE CAST – Summer Phoenix, Grace Van Dien, Kyle Gallner, Jesse Garcia & Reina Hardesty
THE TEAM – Amy Redford (Director) & Scott Organ (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 85 Minutes
“What Comes Around,” which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is billed as an “immersive thriller” about a 17-year-old girl whose relationship with a 28-year-old man she met online stirs up trouble at home – mostly for her newly-engaged mother. The film is directed by Amy Redford, an actress whose only prior feature directorial effort was 2008’s “The Guitar.” It is written by Scott Organ, who adapted his own screenplay entitled “The Thing with Feathers.” For about the first 45 minutes of the movie, there’s a creepy, uncomfortable atmosphere and tone that mostly works, but then the story takes a turn that is unexpected yet unwarranted, featuring difficult subject matter that is (ultimately) not handled well.
“What Comes Around” is about Anna (Grace Van Dien), who has been secretly dating Eric (Kyle Gallner) – but they’ve never met in person. That is, until he mysteriously shows up on her doorstep on her birthday, prompting her to eventually come clean about the relationship with her mother, Beth (Summer Phoenix), and her mother’s fiance (Jesse Garcia), who just happens to be a cop. Of course, her mother is particularly worried about her daughter’s relationship with a much older guy – and we soon find out why, as more and more secrets and twists are unveiled. Anna also confides in her best friend, Brit (Reina Hardesty), throughout all of this.
“What Comes Around” sometimes consists of soap opera-like dialogue that doesn’t necessarily reflect how real people talk. And, while there are a couple of instances of clever writing, there’s much more cliche dialogue, which goes hand in hand with the somewhat predictable plot – at least for the first half or so of the movie. Even so, the predictability is perhaps what helps the first half be so engaging and at least semi-interesting until a shocking twist is revealed – and not in a good way. It’s a twist that seemingly comes out of nowhere and does not make much sense, even if things are heavily explained in the movie’s second half. And, in terms of showing vs. telling, Redford and Organ opt for the latter, providing substantial backstory and characters’ feelings through copious amounts of unrealistic (and sometimes unbearably bad) dialogue. The difficult subject matter it’s depicting is not treated with the respect and care it deserves, and clearly, neither Redford nor Organ are equipped to handle it.
While the second, twist-filled half of “What Comes Around” is replete with detailed accounts of what transpired earlier in the characters’ lives, several questions remain unanswered. Perhaps the brief runtime (85 minutes) is partly to blame, as the film’s first half – while mostly engaging – seems choppy and overly edited. And, yet, there are also instances in the second half in which scenes drag, and the 85 minutes feel longer than they should be. There are too many secrets, surprises, and/or twists, especially for such a short film that only focuses on a handful of characters. “What Comes Around” features a slew of stereotypical characters with few distinguishing qualities, aside from both Anna and Eric being into poetry (it’s how they met and connected). Gallner’s Eric is, at least at first glance, a predictably lying guy who seems to be taking advantage of Van Dien’s Anna, who is far too naive and trusting of this man she has never met before. Phoenix’s Beth is a typically over-worried mother who is harboring secrets of her own. We’ve all seen these characters before, and Organ’s script does very little to make Anna, Eric, and Beth stand out from previous iterations. There are plenty of awkward conversations and situations, and then there’s the insanely hackneyed idea of teen angst directed towards one’s parent(s) – in this case, Anna being mad at her mother. Craig Wedren’s original score doesn’t quite fit with the material – and may even be used too frequently – even though this is mainly the fault of the filmmaker and writer.
Van Dien is fine yet somewhat bland as Anna, and the character she played on “Stranger Things” was much more interesting than this one. Phoenix is given a lot to work with but lacks the skill to convey such complicated emotions. Her face mostly appears skeptical and/or tired and remains weirdly stoic during moments one would expect more emotion. Gallner does the most acting here, even if Eric is a poorly-written character. He’s dialed up to a ten at times, while others (namely Phoenix) are practically near zero. Then, there’s Hardesty’s Brit, a perfectly forgettable character like Garcia’s cop. The actors’ [overall] lackluster performances are certainly not helped by a script replete with character motivations and decisions that often don’t make sense, that aren’t authentic to who they seem to be. And, yet, neither the filmmaking nor the story has caused us to care about the characters enough to empathize with them – which is clearly what Redford and Organ intended.
“What Comes Around” doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie it’s trying to be, despite describing itself as a “thriller.” The film does contain some thriller- and/or horror-esque moments, such as jump scares, but the shifts in tone are too frequent and messy for anything in particular to stick. Overall, Redford’s sophomore feature-length directorial effort is a mess; despite a fairly engaging first half, it fails to stick the landing.