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TIFF 2022: Roost is undone by a poorly executed twist

Roost

Grace Van Dien’s fine lead performance is let down by a stagebound script and a gimmicky, ill-managed narrative flip.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Following Red Rocket and Palm Trees and Power Lines, Amy Redford’s Roost is yet another film about a young girl so blinded by the affection shown to her by an older guy who comes into her life that she cannot recognize his true intentions towards her. The trouble is that while those previous efforts found just the right approach to tackle the risky material they were dealing with—as, respectively, sly social satire and a bleak and unsparing drama—Redford’s film goes for a broadly melodramatic tone with a big mid-film twist that’s meant to be provocative but only serves to muddy the narrative waters. 

As Roost opens, 16-year-old Anna (Grace Van Dien) has been communicating online with Eric (Kyle Gallner), who she met in a poetry forum. She knows that Eric is several years older than her—he’s currently attending college—but since he lives hundreds of miles away, she figures there’s no harm in their mutual flirtation. However, she does keep him a secret from her mother, Beth (Summer Phoenix), who has just gotten engaged to her longtime cop boyfriend, Tim (Jesse Garcia). On the eve of her 17th birthday, Anna is startled to discover that Eric has turned up on her doorstep bearing a book of Emily Dickinson poems as a gift. She’s even more startled to learn that not only is he not in college, he’s actually 28. 

Roost
The Toronto International Film Festival – Roost

Anna may be surprised by Eric’s presence, but she’s intrigued despite the much greater age difference and the fact that he claims to have traveled 900 miles to see her. She sneaks him into the house, and they sleep together. Because Anna does not want to keep secrets from her mother, she decides to come clean and introduce Eric to Beth and Tim. This would be an incredibly awkward situation under any circumstances, but once Beth is introduced to Eric, Roost takes a dark turn, one that demands questions about just what Eric’s real end game is. 

Up to this point, the film, which Scott Organ adapted from his play The Thing With Feathers, isn’t uninteresting. Sure, the staging of several scenes is a bit stiff in ways that make clear the material’s theatrical origins, but Van Dien and Phoenix do good work establishing their characters’ mother-daughter bond. Gallner also does well as someone whose quiet manipulations could plausibly rope in even the smart and savvy.  

But once the big narrative bombshell goes off around the halfway point, Roost goes off the rails. The twist is meant to provoke, flip the story on its head and force viewers to confront their attitudes on the subject at hand. I can imagine an exciting story being developed along these lines—but that doesn’t happen with Roost. Instead, it becomes a gimmick—and an incredibly contrived one—which the film seems unwilling or unable to deal with.

Roost
The Toronto International Film Festival – Roost

Instead of getting a complete sense of Anna’s presumed betrayal once everything comes into the open, she recedes into Roost’s background for long periods. Instead of getting a full sense of what makes Eric tick and what has driven him to do what he’s done, he becomes an increasingly uninteresting cipher whose behavior seems more like the machinations of a contrived screenplay than anything that might occur in real life. 

Perhaps Roost was more effective on stage, where the immediacy of the performances and the material might overcome the clunky dramatic revelations on hand. On film, however, it makes for an undeniably noble but failed exercise in feel-bad filmmaking. Roost wants to leave viewers shaken and stirred. Instead, it only inspires vague annoyance at its squandering of a potentially intriguing premise on an ultimately forgettable project. 

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CategoriesTIFF 2022
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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