‘Roost’ Review: An Insubstantial Thriller About Trauma That’s Neither Thrilling Nor Fresh

A humdrum thriller that clumsily digs into themes of sexual and emotional trauma, Amy Redford’s sophomore feature “Roost” follows Anna (Grace Van Dien), an archetypal perceptive teenage girl on the cusp of maturity. Because she’s the observant kind who yearns for big ideas and possibilities outside of her small suburban world, it’s no surprise that it isn’t a square teenage boy from her school that romantically sweeps Anna off her feet, but a man of nearly 30 years of age she’s met online.

He’s the creepily mysterious Eric (Kyle Gallner, chillingly effective), someone who ignites Anna’s all-consuming emotions, shares her love of Emily Dickinson and notices (at least on the surface) the complexities of this young girl who wants to cross over to adulthood fast. But when he shows up at Anna’s doorstep uninvited all too abruptly after traveling hundreds of miles, he rattles the disturbed Anna, who struggles with saying a firm no to Eric’s disarming demeanor.

The young girl’s dilemma — should she give into or reject Eric? — surely makes for a decent enough premise, even though the answer should be extremely obvious to someone as smart and alert as Anna. Still, her quandary is a ripe and ever-timely foundation that instantly invites comparisons to Joyce Chopra’s underrated Laura Dern-starring “Smooth Talk” — an ahead-of-its-time #MeToo movie that comprehends the headspace of a teenage girl and the powerful sway of feeling seen and understood by a grown-up at a lonely, high-stakes age. It also brings to mind the recent, 2022 Sundance directing award winner “Palm Trees and Power Lines” by Jamie Dack, a title that takes an even darker route with similar inquiries.

In adapting screenwriter Scott Organ’s play, Redford (yes, Robert’s daughter) doesn’t take either direction however, at least not explicitly. Instead, her film introduces a surprise connection between Eric and Anna’s single mother Beth (Summer Phoenix), a cool-mom type who maintains a close relationship with her daughter that resembles a friendship more than responsible parenting. Before the shift in dynamics arrives amid the trio, we get introduced to the routines of Anna and Beth during an early scene where Beth joyfully flaunts her new diamond ring to her daughter, announcing her engagement to her boyfriend Tim (Jesse Garcia) who works in law enforcement. The news gets warmly received and feted by Anna, who’s approaching a celebration of her own with her 17th birthday party just around the corner.

There is a palpable sense of self-conscious overacting in Phoenix’s performance throughout, especially when she sees Eric and visibly recognizes him from a past life during which she used to work as a schoolteacher. Phoenix feels heavy-handed and self-aware in her expressions and body language as Beth tries to talk Anna out of her affection for and trust in Eric, clearly attempting to cover her own tracks for a secret wrongdoing she’s got on her record. On the other hand, Van Dien (granddaughter of Robert Mitchum) infuses the film with an elegant blend of wide-eyed vulnerability and subtle tenacity, earning sympathy for her character who gets heartlessly victimized by the reckless grown-ups around her.

Once the story’s chief surprise arrives — a plot turn that is more a part of the premise than a shocking final twist — Anna gets sidelined, leaving the stage to Eric and Beth as the two try to settle old scores. It’s quite obvious that Beth has cruelly and immorally used Eric back in the day despite denying it now, overstepping a very “Notes on a Scandal”-type boundary that shouldn’t be crossed between an educator in a position of power and an underage student.

Twelve years after the incident, is Eric — now a damaged adult who should still know better — back for revenge or does he genuinely care about Anna? If only the story was a bit more eager to engage with the stifling aftermath of such an abuse of power, rather than simply to use this question as surface-level fodder for a thriller that feels neither all that gripping nor innovative, no matter how unpredictable the movie tries to be. Briefly, the slightest hint of freshness emerges in “Roost,” a rare film that attempts to depict how men might continue to suffer the consequences of abuse in adulthood. But in its wake, “Roost” leaves an ill trace in its entitled squandering of Anna as a scapegoat paying for her mother’s misconducts. Based on everything we get to learn about this intelligent character, Anna’s continual lack of good judgement truly makes no defensible sense.

In the end, Redford’s output feels like a short overstretched to feature length, something more suited to stage than screen despite the director’s ungainly efforts to make her outing feel cinematic amid a pretty mountainous setting and a handsomely appointed house where the majority of the story unfolds. But more awkward than anything is the yarn’s miscalculated keenness to shock with only a handful of half-baked ideas of little substance.