TIFF 2022 Review: Secrets Rule “What Comes Around”

“I just want to be straight with you – I’m not everything,” Eric (Kyle Gallner) tells Anna (Grace Van Dien) in “What Comes Around,” having the sensitivity to know that she is starting to think he is. Having swept into her life via an Emily Dickinson online forum, seductive poetry comes easily to the 28-year-old making her forget that she’s only 16…well, 17, shortly after Amy Redford’s adaptation of Scott Organ’s play “The Thing With Feathers” begins with her mother Beth (Summer Phoenix) racing around the house to get everything right for her birthday. Anna can’t be bothered, her head buried in her laptop charting up either Eric or her friend Britt, and largely oblivious to the milestone, but it’s a far more momentous occasion than she could expect when Eric shows up at her door after believing he’s nearly 900 miles away and as in Dickinson’s day, she’d be relating to Eric strictly in letters.

Appearing in the flesh and yet not at all what he appears, Eric is ready to turn things upside down in “What Comes Around,” though for what reasons becomes the driving force in the curious drama where unlike any others about an age-inappropriate relationship, Anna seems relatively well-adjusted and wary of his advances. More surprisingly, Beth seems a little more excited about the prospect, at least with limited information about the new beau, when her daughter should be more social and she herself is in love, with her boyfriend proposing on the eve of Anna’s birthday. Still, the celebration is short-lived when Eric darkens their doorstep to everyone’s surprise, and to say much more would deprive “What Comes Around” of its most effective element when it doesn’t allow any preconceptions to get in the way of its thoughtful and complex consideration of how power dynamics work between adults and minors. As soon as Anna opens the door to Eric, the film is able to envision both of them in their teenage years, vulnerable to the influence of the older people around them and convinced they’re making the best choices for themselves when all the warning signs are telling them otherwise.

The film’s roots on the stage are exposed in the limited setting and characters – Anna’s birthday party seems less well-attended for her lack of friends than for the number of actors allowed on set for an indie production in the time of COVID, but you can see the unique opportunity that Redford surely did in bringing the chamber drama to the screen, when the suspense shifts from wondering whether Eric is taking advantage of Anna to becoming curious about why Beth is so reticent about confronting him. A lack of judgment becomes one of the great strengths of “What Comes Around” when age hardly equates to wisdom and each character is clearly trying their best with the hand they’ve been dealt from a an increasingly rotten-looking deck.

It wouldn’t work if it Van Dien, Phoenix and particularly Gallner, who unexpectedly emerges as the beating heart of the story, weren’t as vulnerable and open as they become as the central trio and the film, while structurally engineered for some shocks, excels when it creates the space for the uncomfortable conversations that they must have to move forward and is sure to spark some of its own. Redford doesn’t shy away from what’s upsetting about the material at hand and by diving into it so fearlessly, “What Comes Around” pushes past mere provocation to show genuine interest in where it’s characters’ stunted development or desire to overlook their past has become toxic in a different way than they can expect. In the end, there may be little that’s straightforward about “What Comes Around” except how it’s able to hit you so squarely and refuses to pull its punches.

“What Comes Around” opens on August 4th.

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