Amy Redford’s What Comes Around (which premiered at TIFF as Roost) is deeply invested in making sure that it is “about” something. In this case, that something is the current uptick in teen grooming discourse (the actual kind, not the homophobic and transphobic scare tactic used by far-right pundits) as well as the way that this risk is now made all the more prevalent in our all-consuming digital age. Along the way, though, in its heavy-handedness and thematic insistence, What Comes Around loses the ability to tell a story that is compelling, nuanced, or able to stand on its own.
What Comes Around begins by introducing us to the burgeoning relationship between high schooler Anna (Grace Van Dien) and her online boyfriend Eric (Kyle Gallner). The two are romantically involved after meeting online on a poetry message board but have yet to meet in person. Eric claims to be just a bit older; he poses as a college student but is soon revealed to be much older than the newly eighteen-year-old Anna — by about a decade or so.
The story soon spins out far beyond this original ethical conundrum, however, when Eric comes to town to finally actually meet Anna. He’s perhaps a little off-putting, but his barely legal girlfriend, still relatively naive, finds him generally charming. However, Anna’s well-meaning, if not a little out-of-touch mother Beth (Summer Phoenix) is extremely and suspiciously upset upon seeing Eric. As Beth works desperately to detangle her daughter from Eric’s manipulative clutches, revelations about past discretions from multiple generations are soon brought to the forefront. In the midst of this tumult of teenage rebellion, Eric accuses Beth of doing the same thing to him when he was a teen a decade or so ago as he is doing to Anna.
What Comes Around is not quite the thriller it sells itself to be, nor is it quite the elevated statement on coming-of-age in the digital era that it tries to later reveal itself to be. Instead, the film feels more like the imperfect start of the conversation around grooming and the sexual exploitation of teens than the end of it.
The twisting and turning of a multi-generational grooming revenge scheme comes off as more than muddied, offering not much more than a general platitude of “hurt people hurt people” and a pretty obvious warning that teenagers are particularly at risk for sexual exploitation (and equally likely not to be taken seriously when they come forward about being manipulated).
That said, there are a few things worthy of crediting What Comes Around for. Van Dien continues to stand out in her niche typecast of “teen girl in peril”, which began on Stranger Things in the spring of this year. She brings a similar doe-eyed gaze and internal turmoil (replete with at least one fantastic and feral tortured-young-woman scream) to the forefront of What Comes Around. One would like to see her in something that really allows her to dig into the skill she seems to be honing in these fairly one-note parts thus far, however.
And while What Comes Around is not an airtight or perfectly executed feature, the film at least avoids being some totally heavy-handed PSA about the inherent evil of the Internet. In fact, What Comes Around seems to suggest that our society’s frequent manipulation, sexualization, and grooming of teens has always existed, and that it has just failed to be taken seriously until now — an idea I wish the film would have delved into with a bit more finesse.
What Comes Around is just not really where it needs to be for the big bite of modern discourse it is trying to thoroughly chew. It’s not a film that is necessarily offensive or entirely without merit, but it is hardly an essential addition to our current conversation around grooming and the digital age.