In the opening moments of What Comes Around, a 2022 film directed by Amy Redford, Beth (Summer Phoenix) and her daughter Anna (Grace Van Dien) appear to have the same sort of relationship that the characters Lorelai and Rory, respectively, enjoyed in the popular television series Gilmore Girls. Beth and Anna appear to be ideal confidantes for each other, having endured the dramas of Beth’s disastrous marriage to Anna’s father that collapsed some 13 years ago. Now a successful realtor, Beth is engaged to Tim (Jesse Garcia), a local police officer, while Anna, who is celebrating her 17th birthday, has kept the close bonds with her mother but also the inevitable force of a teen’s desire to carve out her independence has taken center stage.
But, like the Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai, Beth never seems to know the proper time for being a friend to her daughter and when she needs to be Anna’s mother. As close as that maternal bond might seem on the surface, their codependency also primes the stage for dramatic tension that spills over into confrontation and rebellion. While Anna is ready to burst out of her bedroom nest, Beth still prefers the odd comfort of the constraints of her home’s design and tight layout, despite the fact that she has outgrown it. Beth also has a chance to break a generational cycle that could become a major problem, but she also has yet to recognize the psychological and emotional risks with the pains arising from her past, which are about to be passed down to Anna.
Redford’s film, which is a faithful adaptation of Scott Organ’s play The Thing with Feathers, intelligently builds compelling layers upon a classic narrative premise about how an individual’s past behaviors and actions can return suddenly to haunt them in moments when the characters otherwise expect to be celebrating happy events in their lives.
Shot entirely in Utah locations including Park City, the film, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, will begin screening tomorrow (Friday, Aug. 25) at the Salt Lake Film Society’s Broadway Centre Cinemas.
The film, with a running time of slightly more than 80 minutes, opens with Anna in her bedroom on the eve of her birthday, talking with Eric, who lives 900 miles away, over FaceTime. Both share a love for Emily Dickinson’s poetry (hence, the verse which is the title of Organ’s original) and Anna is enjoying flirting with a guy whom she believes is a twenty-something college student. Despite the news that her mother is now engaged to be married and everyone is talking about arrangements for Anna’s birthday party, the daughter is occupied by exchanging texts with Eric (Kyle Gallner).
On her birthday, Anna is shocked to see that Eric traveled the long distance to give her a book of Dickinson poetry. While she is unsettled at first, she warms to him quickly, even as he reveals his real age (28). They eventually end up in her bed and while Eric narrowly avoids being caught, Anna tells him that he cannot leave the house, as she prepares to go out with her family and friends to celebrate her birthday. Redford drops in some subtle foreshadowing hints along the way, such as when Eric finally sneaks out of the house, believing that no one is at home except for Beth who is taking a shower.
Nevertheless, the relationship deepens for Anna and Eric and she decides to introduce him to Beth, first warning her mother that her new boyfriend is considerably older. When Anna brings in Eric, Beth is shocked. Eric, whose actual name is Jesse, was a student of hers when she was a teacher and they had an intimate relationship, at the time when her marriage had collapsed. In fact, Beth left teaching because of the scandal and became a realtor. At this point, neither Anna nor Tim (Beth’s fiancé) know of the circumstances but Beth orders Eric out of the house, which upsets Anna and she refuses to talk to her mother.
The dramatic tension simmers and expands through the film, despite Beth’s efforts to constrain any more details from being revealed and to mitigate whatever grave impact might come of their disclosure. The counterpoint is effective: the film’s low-key focus on restraint runs up continuously against the roiling emotional currents. The actors balance this marvelously, shading their characters with an astute sense of compassion for the complexities of human behavior at hand. Beth struggles to keep the truth of her relationship with Eric (Jesse) hidden, insisting that he is the one to blame and that his recollections are total fiction. Eric’s damaged life is paralyzed without a path for closure, and he believes the only way to persuade Beth to confess everything is to play the same game of romantic connection with Anna that her mother played with him when he was her student. Meanwhile, Anna’s relationship with Eric intensifies, despite the revelations or the fact that one of her peers closer to her age is interested in dating her.
As the story progresses, the two orbiting cores of emotional tension in the narrative – Beth and Eric, being one, and Anna and Eric, the other – approach the colliding point. As Redford says in an interview with The Utah Review, the nuances of managing that in a film which fuses genre elements of psychological thriller, teen flick, family drama, Greek tragedy and even horror were essential. “We’re living in some strange times and it’s very easy to look at someone’s behavior and demonize,” Redford explains. “But perhaps it is also a wonderful moment to investigate just even in a slightly deeper context why that person is behaving that way. Is it possible that the person had been failed earlier in their life and therefore had been calcified developmentally thirteen years prior? These are things worth exploring.”
Redford says that collaborating with Organ was a natural opportunity. “We were developing a project many years ago that basically fell apart right as we were about to shoot and I have always loved his writing,” she explains. “During COVID, he sent me this play he had written to get my feedback on it and I read it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great play,’ but also this has great possibilities as a film that we could shoot during COVID.”
Organ’s play is suited well to being staged as a chamber theater piece and Redford has framed it similarly, as there are just three supporting characters beside the quartet of the four who encompass the narrative’s depth and breadth (Beth, Anna, Eric and Tim). As Redford noted in her director’s statement, Organ’s play became “a movie for the times — not only in its contained structure, but in its provocation. Technology collapses time and space, making the past present in unforeseen ways. This seems like a simultaneous gift and curse we see play out in our culture every day.”
There is a refreshing open-ended nature to What Comes Around, particularly in the balanced portraits the actors convey in their characters. This includes Tim, a police officer. Redford says that his character rises from the question of “What does an exhibition of power look like for this character?” and the response to frame him as a “protector without it becoming overly aggressive.”
As with Organ’s play, anytime a narrative can spark a spirited debate is worth the time to see it, including a drama that is restrained enough to let its viewers be introspective about the characters and the story’s outcome. Some might wonder why Tim, for example, does not blow up and immediately arrest Eric when Anna introduces him to her mother and her soon-to-be stepfather. Others might chide Anna for her actions to sneak in Eric, adding that this confirms how today’s teens are too immature and reckless to acknowledge the gravity or consequences of their behavior. Others might debate the issue of slack parenting or problems they see when parents are more interested in having their children as friends and confidantes than as exemplifying responsible adult roles for their children. Redford says, “I am not going to tell people how to feel about it. A win for me is that it is a provocation for conversation. And that is sort of what I hope to stimulate.”
Redford, who lives in Salt Lake City and has deep roots in Utah, says the decision to film the project entirely in state was a given from the outset. The production team is packed with Utah professionals and Geralyn Dreyfous, co-founder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films and the co-founder of the Utah Film Center, is executive producer. The film also was made possible through the Utah Film Commission’s Motion Picture Incentive Program.
Redford says she is grateful for how the Park City community came out to support the project, adding that they “were so generous towards us.” The Utah landscape became central for finding the ideal home for the characters of Beth and Anna, she adds. “The home is an oasis for the two of them yet Beth was starting to bust out of it a little bit so there was an intentional contained feeling within the home,” Redford explains. “But when you leave the home, you also have the expanse of the mountains. For me psychologically, the mountains have always been a source of humility and they implicate me in my truths. Whenever I am in the mountains I have to level out as a human being.”
To amplify the emotional dynamics through visuals, Redford says, “The house that we shot in was absolutely too beautiful so we collapsed the house and made it one story.” She adds, with a laugh, “We had to take a lot of the beautiful things out of the house and bring in my kids’ lovingly ugly pottery and the half-dead plants.”
In augmenting the film’s dialogue to move in a good rhythm, the film’s visual details connect to the Dickinson references that are integral in the exposition for both Organ’s play and Redford’s film. Up until recently, the public’s imagination of the great 19th century poet is of a reclusive woman who typically wore white in her Amherst, Massachusetts home. That has changed in contemporary popular culture, with the release of Dickinson, the television series based on the poet’s life that aired on Apple TV+, and which explores modern themes of gender roles, sexual identity and artistic expression amidst a backdrop of the social, cultural and political climate prevalent during her life. Certainly, a 21st century teenager like Anna sees Dickinson in this contemporary view of a radical independent spirit. The question is whether or not her mother (Beth) fully comprehends her daughter’s embrace of that spirit.
For more information about tickets and screening times, see this Salt Lake Film Society’s link.