Early on in What Comes Around, Amy Redford’s sophomore feature (coming after a 15-year hiatus), it becomes clear that logic will be an absent player. The first clue to this end comes when Anna (Grace Van Dien) reveals that she has met a dreamy boy on a poetry forum — yes, in the year of our Lord 2023, viewers are asked to believe that people meet on poetry forums. (Sure, Instagram is saturated with influencers sharing daffy-headed bromides and dark bedroom feels cosplaying as poetry, but “forums”…?). Eric (Kyle Gallner) is an “older” college student who reads Emily Dickinson poems to Anna over FaceTime, which is all it takes for a teenager to fall in love, apparently. When he shows up at her house on her seventeenth birthday, she spends approximately eight minutes being freaked out before deciding he’s chill — despite actually being 28 and not in college — and sleeps with him. Oblivious to Eric’s obvious exploitation, Anna introduces him to her mom, Beth (Summer Phoenix), and Tim, her future stepdad. The former is appropriately upset while the latter, a cop, isn’t concerned at all — bright stepdadding future ahead, Timmy. But this fairly predictable psycho-sexual thriller setup, as unhinged as it may already appear to viewers, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the off-the-rails places that What Comes Around is about to go.
You see, Eric is actually Jesse, a former student of Beth’s with whom she had an alleged affair. The film’s narrative shape feels firmly planted in the ‘90s thriller playground, with plenty of space to move in arch genre ways. Unfortunately, Redford and writer Scott Organ try to play all of this with a straight face, attempting to craft some sort of self-serious message movie about grooming, sexual assault, and trauma. But to address such subject matter demands a measured approach, and thanks to all of the overdramatic efforts at building tension and the tone-deaf, genre-driven approach to the material at large, Organ’s script ends up coming off as more exploitative than anything, as Jesse’s trauma from his experiences is brushed off in favor of yet another twist.
Equally imbalanced are the performances in What Comes Around. It’s tough to know whether one can pin all of these struggles on the script, but the histrionics that are intrinsic to the film’s fabric make executing these roles with any slickness or sensitivity nearly impossible. On the one hand, you have Phoenix, nearly catatonic in her delivery, at odds with the film’s sensationalist texture; on the other is Gallner, who matches the film’s energy but delivers overblown work that feeds the film’s existing problems. Van Dien manages to hold her own for a while, though as the tension continues to ratchet, she likewise feels undone by an increasingly convoluted plot, trying but failing to anchor the proceedings in more grounded and human terrain. It’s also nearly impossible to determine any aesthetic intent in What Comes Around, its endless zooms and habit of playing scenes for a beat too long feeling like they would be more at home in a Californians sketch than a feature film. Likewise tilting more toward SNL standards is What Comes Around’s costume design — somehow standing out as arguably the biggest of the film’s many flaws — with characters outfitted like their garb was plucked from a closet designed to dress a Gen-Z fever dream sketch. Ultimately, what’s most telling about Redford’s film is that it both exploits and trivializes a series of very serious issues, and yet viewers will likely need to squint to find even that deeply troubling flaw amidst all of the bizarre and unbalanced choices evinced across What Comes Around’s 83 minutes.
DIRECTOR: Amy Redford; CAST: Grace Van Dien, Summer Phoenix, Kyle Gallner; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films; IN THEATERS: August 4; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 23 min.