Roger Ebert Home

What Comes Around

The last few years have seen some very thoughtful, empathetic films that tackle the thorny subject of grooming, specifically of teenage girls by older men. These include Jamie Dack’s Sundance-winning “Palm Trees and Power Lines” and Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s Tribeca-winning “Good Girl Jane.” The unfortunate misfire “What Comes Around,” from director Amy Redford and screenwriter Scott Organ, is what happens when filmmakers lack tact and land squarely in the realm of exploitation.

We meet Anna (Grace Van Dien) the day before her seventeenth birthday. She’s texting about poetry with a man named Eric (Kyle Gallner), whom she assumes to be a college student who lives 900 miles away. She’s all smiles as he compares her to Emily Dickinson. She lives with her single mother, Beth (Summer Phoenix), who has just become engaged to her boyfriend, Tim (Jesse Garcia), the Assistant Chief of Police. 

Everything is going well for the trio until Eric shows up on her doorstep the morning of her birthday to hand deliver to her a book of Dickinson’s poetry. At first, Anna balks at this grand gesture, calling it inappropriate and aggressive. But eventually, his puppy dog apology wins her over, despite the revelation that he's actually 28 years old. As he walks her to school, Redford hammers home their age difference by dressing Anna in a classic Catholic schoolgirl style garb.

One abrupt cut later, and she’s hiding him in her closet—they’ve clearly slept together—from Beth and Tim, who have set up the kitchen with a very child-like birthday celebration, complete with unicorn hats and a pink vegan cake. This is where you expect the film to explore the psychological effects of Eric’s grooming behavior. Instead, the film zags with a twist straight out of an old-school Lifetime movie. 

Beth and Eric, whose real name is Jess, have a secret history from when he was a teenager and she was his student; his relationship with Anna was all plotted out to reconnect with her and exact revenge, or at least some sort of emotional catharsis. The film is so slippery with its character motivations it’s never clear exactly what his endgame is.

In a sharper vision, the details of this twist could have explored the bias in how the stories of groomed teenage boys are treated compared to teenage girls. But the script only briefly touches on the subject. Instead, it opts for soapy dialogue about unreliable memories, which is just a poorly hidden attempt by Beth at gaslighting Eric.

Filmed entirely in Utah, Redford’s minimal use of settings—Anna’s bedroom, a schoolyard, a forest, and a few living rooms—amplifies the story’s theatrical roots. As does the film’s dialogue, in which the actors always seem to be reciting each other’s cues rather than talking with any semblance of natural speech. 

Icky plotting aside, you need strong actors to make a chamber piece like this work. Van Dien does her best with her underwritten character but is often overshadowed by the dynamic presence of Reina Hardesty, who plays her best friend, Brit. Phoenix is out of her depth after the twist, especially in the penultimate scene, which itself contains yet another twist. Garcia is just sort of there, playing a character whose reactions to the film’s plotting make little sense, given his profession.

As Eric, however, Gallner seems to be the only actor given room to craft a little nuance. He’s charming and crafts a believable chemistry with Van Dien. Although Redford chooses to film these early scenes with Eric seducing Anna in a flowery way, they play like stereotypical young love rather than grooming scenes. After the twist, Gallner also brings pathos to Eric, revealing a very broken young man. It’s unfortunate, again, that Redford chooses to film these scenes with as much flair as a generic made-for-TV potboiler. 

“What Comes Around” ultimately exploits the stories of groomed teens like Anna and Eric without bringing insight into its lasting effects. Redford's film uses this deeply tragic form of abuse as a launching pad for a shallow psychological thriller without much psychology, a morality tale without any morals. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

Now playing

Poolman
Arcadian
Challengers
We Grown Now
The Long Game
Back to Black

Film Credits

What Comes Around movie poster

What Comes Around (2023)

Rated NR

83 minutes

Cast

Summer Phoenix as Beth

Grace Van Dien as Anna

Jesse Garcia as Tim

Kyle Gallner as Eric

Indiana Affleck as Denny

Reina Hardesty as Brit

Sierra Rose as Ashley

Gabriel Monroe Eckert as Leo

Director

Writer (based upon the play by)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus