The story of a high school girl who’s forced — alongside her dimwitted boyfriend and kind uncle — to fend off a pair of armed thieves, “How to Deter a Robber” delivers the blandest take possible on its home-invasion scenario. With low stakes and even lower energy, writer-director Maria Bissell’s feature debut isn’t sure if it’s a thriller with amusing elements or a comedy of criminal absurdity. What it winds up being, therefore, is neither,
During a Christmas getaway at a lakeside cabin, Madison (Vanessa Marano) spars incessantly with her mother, Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris), while failing to come up with a college application essay that impresses any of her relatives. Bored and annoyed, she and her immature beau, Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), spy a light on in the neighbor’s house and — in a decision that seems unbelievable from the get-go — decide to break in, play with the absent owners’ Ouija board and then fall asleep in a drunken and stoned stupor in the master bedroom. The following morning, they awaken to find the place ransacked, and when the cops arrive, they don’t buy the narrative the kids are selling, even though it’s quite obvious that Madison and Jimmy wouldn’t have called 911 in the first place if they were the guilty parties.
More from Variety
Thus Madison and Jimmy wind up in hot water, compelled by law enforcement to stay in the area pending the conclusion of the investigation, which requires that they be left by their parents in the care of uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey). As far as contrived setups go, this is pretty weak stuff, although Bissell and cinematographer Stephen Tringali’s assured visual eye and Patrick Lawrence’s sharp editing at least cast the proceedings in a professional aesthetic light. When Andy’s house is also burglarized, the trio retreat to the family’s primary enclave, and fearful of the robbers on the loose, Madison and Jimmy booby-trap the joint, “Home Alone” style — only to then have those ruses not factor into the ensuing action.
As one might expect, the robbers — in the form of demanding Patrick (Sonny Valicenti) and friendly Christine (Abbie Cobb) — eventually show up, this after “How to Deter a Robber” has repeatedly teased their arrival via brief, silent snapshots of the duo going about their business, often wearing masks that make them look like hodags (i.e., spiked folktale beasts). A hostage situation materializes, as do potentially deadly bouts of violence, leaving Madison to fight for her life in partnership with a grating boyfriend whose every semi-drunken move is the incorrect one.
Depressingly, having worked to get her pieces into battle position, Bissell does almost nothing with her familiar scenario; the first half is a mirth-free slog through two-dimensional conflicts and dilemmas, and the back half is a compendium of pedestrian genre maneuvers. At every turn, “How to Deter a Robber” makes the most conventional move possible. While Papac flounders with one lousy wannabe-funny line after another, the charming Marano and Mulkey invest as much energy and heart into their characters as the script will allow. There’s so little meat on the material’s bones, however, that their attempts at humanizing their protagonists’ plight — or making it even mildly suspenseful — prove to be as vain as the film’s stabs at humor.
Best of Variety