Runtime: 85 minutes
Director: Amy Redford
Writer: Scott Organ (screenplay based upon his play of the same title)
Actors: Summer Phoenix, Grace Van Dien, Kyle Gallner, Jesse Garcia, Reina Hardesty, Sierra Nicole Rose, Indiana Affleck
By Special Guest Reviewer: Sarah Manvel
“Roost”, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, focuses on one beautiful suburban home which has taken its comfort and safety for granted. In the Colorado mountains where teenage Anna (Grace Van Dien) and her mother Beth (Summer Phoenix) live, the air is clear, the houses are spacious, and the roads are quiet enough the kids need little supervision. The standard of living is obviously so high there’s no need to put a physical moat around the place, and anyway there’s so little crime the well-paid cops can be at the town’s beck and call. But smugness and complacency are dangerous, of course, and with the internet there’s more than one way to infiltrate a fortress. Violence doesn’t have to be physical to cause lasting harm, either.
Violence doesn’t have to be physical to cause lasting harm, either.
Anna is a good, studious, trustworthy girl, looking ahead to the end of high school and the bright future that undoubtedly awaits. She has been active on some poetry chatrooms and swapped phone numbers with Eric (Kyle Gallner, more on whom later), a slightly older boy who shares her enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson. Their constant texting has morphed into long phone calls. Beth doesn’t exactly approve but is cautiously pleased Anna is happy. But on Anna’s seventeenth birthday Eric makes a videocall that shows he’s brought her present (a book of poetry) to her front door. It’s enough to make the blood of even the most besotted teenager run cold, but it runs colder still when Anna decides to entertain his explanations. They include the news that he’s older than he said – in his mid-twenties. But the collection of red flags doesn’t turn into a cliched horror-movie parade of bad decisions. Writer Scott Organ (who adapted the screenplay from his own play) and director Amy Redford (who clearly learned a thing or two by being her father’s child) are interested in something much worse than that.
After some sneaking around, Eric convinces Anna to introduce him to Beth and her fiancé Tim (Jesse Garcia), the local police chief. Beth’s shock at seeing Eric and her immediate insistence that he leave her house feels like the appropriate reaction of a mother realising her child is in way over her head. Tim, who maintains the kind of expert calm that’s as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake, escorts Eric out of the house, and thinks it will fizzle out soon. But Beth explains that she has a personal reason (not to be spoiled) to need Eric out of their lives, the movie immediately goes up a notch, in quality and tension both.
The believability, and the mood, all stands or falls on Mr. Gallner’s shoulders. We need to see Eric as an awkward but polite young man who knows the age gap between him and his girlfriend is not great, and that Anna can’t see his subtle manipulations of her excitement and naivety are the spice that secretly seasons his feelings. He’s playing an unkind and selfish game that Anna doesn’t understand, and Beth doesn’t know how to explain without hurting her more. (Tim, who was once an awkward but polite young man in love himself, is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.) On top of that, there’s the awful truth of what really brought Eric to Anna’s door, and his knowledge that Beth will put Anna’s wellbeing over anything else makes him unpredictable indeed. Mr. Gallner more than rises to the challenge of accurately reflecting these complicated, shifting priorities primarily through body language, and what looks to Anna like defiant first love is to Beth the lashings out of a cornered, wounded bear. Miss Van Dien is excellent as the sheltered child learning the hard way how complicated people and their motivations can be, but it’s Miss Phoenix who takes an unpleasant part and makes it not only believable but almost sympathetic. Her half-truths are just as selfish and vicious as Eric’s lies, but Miss Phoenix somehow also expresses how thoroughly she needs to believe them herself, making them their own justification. She and Mr. Gallner are perfectly matched.
Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski chose to film Beth’s house in half-light, as if she and Anna are so used to powerful sunlight they rarely touch their light-switches, making this gleaming murk a potent metaphor. Anna’s bedroom, as styled by Camille Johnson, is covered with hanging scarves and throw pillows, like the inside of a yurt – a childish cocoon she’s desperate to burst out of. Ms Redford’s direction hangs back and lets the characters talk (or text) in naturalistic, friendly ways. Anna’s friends Brit (Reina Hardesty), Ashley (Sienna Nicole Rose), and Denny (Indiana Affleck) have the inarticulate, well-meaning thoughtfulness of a solid little gang, but while they are older teenagers they are still children, unable to imagine malice in their cossetted little world. It begs the question of the limits of the protections possible against hateful psychological games – Tim is the town’s police chief and right there, in front of Eric, all the time – and all adds up to a desperately sad exploration of the consequences of adults playing adult games with children. While it’s an awkward and unpleasant watch, the strength of the acting and the deliberately muted horror means that it’s an unmissable one, especially for children who think they’ve already grown up.
About Sarah: Sarah Manvel is the author of the novelette YOU RUIN IT WHEN YOU TALK (Open Pen, 2020). She is also the chief film critic of criticsnotebook.com, and writes film, book and art reviews for a variety of sites. She is a dual Irish-American citizen and lives in London, on twitter as @typewritersarah and on instagram as @cairdiul (the Irish for friendly).