What Comes Around is a tricky film to talk about without massive spoilers unless, of course, the eventual marketing campaign decides divulging its secrets will help them sell it. I’m hoping they ultimately choose to keep its twists and turns under wraps because going in blind adds a dimension that I’m sure playwright Scott Organ (who adapts his own “The Thing with Feathers”) intended and director Amy Redford matches. As she mentions in the press notes, What Comes Around is about provocation. It’s about telling us one thing only to transform it into another thing and spark a conversation that many of us still might not want to engage in. It’s about exploiting one’s power over another and falling prey to theirs. It’s about double standards. It’s about control and debilitating shame.
You may not anticipate all that upon reading the premise: soon-to-be seventeen-year-old Anna (Grace Van Dien) has been talking online with an older (read “college-aged”) boy about their mutual love for poetry. In an attempt to surprise her on her birthday, Eric (Kyle Gallner) drives the 900 miles to her home unannounced, despite her never telling him her address. She is justifiably mortified and tells him as much—even using the word “aggressive.” Yet his genuine “aww shucks” demeanor and thoughtful gift earn him the benefit of the doubt anyway. And when *red flag* he admits he’s a bit older than “college-aged” (read twenty-eight) she innocently wonders what’s another few years? Mom (Summer Phoenix’s Beth) won’t be happy either way. And Anna can’t say no to love.
There’s some really good mirroring that comes out of this discovery. It’s half-passive aggressive grooming and half self-delusion on behalf of Anna since she wants this relationship to be accepted. There’s a great scene where she’s helping her mother try on dresses (Beth just got engaged to her boyfriend, Jesse Garcia’s Tim) only to admit she often wondered if Mom had tried to sabotage her own happiness. Beth looks sad and says, “Maybe” before Anna tells her she should follow her heart no matter what. It’s such a weighted exchange considering where her own heart is leading her and the perfect segue to the moment that we all know is coming. What we can’t anticipate is just how much Beth wants Eric out of her daughter’s life.
It’s the sort of reaction that gets your mind racing for answers that you’ll probably guess correctly—partially if not completely. Even so, however, you still might not be able to see the bigger picture beyond that first revelation since its ramifications reverberate through time as well as emotion. There’s history that’s being unleashed and Beth isn’t ready to confront what it demands of her. So, she lashes out. She throws Eric out of the house and (as Tim warned) pushes Anna further into his arms. It’s the sort of scenario that makes you wonder whether the truth will make things worse since secrets and trauma buried deep below the surface are destined to cause even more strife. None of them can move forward without first going back.
The result is a series of uncomfortable conversations that must be said in order for them to heal both from the events that hurt them and the embarrassment that takes control of their minds once the aftermath causes them to question their motivations, complicity, and, possibly, memory. Where do the lies therefore begin and end? When does self-preservation turn predators into prey and victims into perpetrators? You will sympathize with each of the three main characters (Anna, Beth, and Eric) during the course of the film and despise them in equal measure either for their naïveté, opportunism, or maliciousness. Organ has meticulously structured his script to force us to second guess our knee-jerk preconceptions and Redford (with a very game cast) deftly brings that complexity to life on-screen.
Because they all know what they are doing (or did do) is wrong. There’s no debating that. What was (or is being) done to them is too, though. That’s where the intrigue lies since they’re all good people despite instilling a sense of visceral fear in the others. Do we ever believe one will physically harm another? Not in a threatening manner. (Inappropriate physical harm wherein consent was gained under the auspices of “love” does occur.) Yet that crippling anxiety remains. That uncertainty that their worlds are about to be ripped open and changed forever is heavy because one of them already had their life transformed a decade ago. None of it can be erased with an apology either. The damage wrought is permanent. Sins must be atoned.
So, things get even trickier when those who did wrong aren’t those being forced to atone. Those sins are being passed onto others by virtue of their silence. When someone has the power to make their transgressions disappear, those impacted by them sometimes must find alternative methods for compensation. Does that make them wrong? Yes. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Does it make them inhuman? No. Maybe their actions are wrong, but their pain and impulse to do whatever is possible to make it stop isn’t. The question is thus whether the road to justice will necessitate ruining more lives to make its point or whether the target of its vengeance will be able to shoulder the consequences that were previously avoided. Regardless, collateral damage becomes unavoidable.
In usual theatrical form, it all guarantees that main trio has a lot to work with. Van Dien is more or less the pickle in the middle and thus a pawn in certain regards, but both her performance and the script provide her the depth necessary to find autonomy within those constraints (and perhaps the most pragmatic outlook courtesy of a scathing final line). This is conversely Phoenix and Gallner’s show. They are manipulating Anna and each other while also finding the cracks in the façades they created (or created for each other). It’s a devastating series of revelations met with heartrending gravitas to make us question our loyalties and prejudices. What Comes Around is a story without winners because none of them are innocent. Not fully anyway.
What Comes Around premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.