A great deal of confidence both defines and, ultimately, undermines the promise of How to Deter a Robber, which carries a premise of surprising cleverness. For all intents and purposes, writer/director Maria Bissell’s feature debut is a light coming-of-age comedy, in which Madison (Vanessa Marano) is spending the Christmas break prior to college applying for degree programs, juggling the expectations of her overbearing mother, and savoring the remaining time she has with her boyfriend. It would all go swimmingly, too, if not for a pair of meddling criminals. More important, though, is what these robbers represent within Madison’s journey to true adulthood.

Marano’s performance goes a long way to building up a reservoir of sympathy for Madison, who is sardonic toward everyone in and everything about her life and certain about her ability to handle any situation – to a fault in both cases. The problem is that things quickly become too real when those criminal interlopers raid the Wisconsin cabin where Madison, her mother Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris), her uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey), and her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) are staying. To make matters worse, the robbers made away with some valuables at a neighbor’s house while Madison and Jimmy slept together there, meaning that the two teenagers are now persons of interest in the crime.

Returning to Andy’s own home, then sojourning back to the family cabin when that plan goes awry, the movie begins to run into its major and fatal problem – a complete disconnect between tone and content. This is particularly evident for the entire middle-act build-up to what comes later, from the way Jimmy suggests watching an infamous cult-classic movie as a distraction (the one about Santa and Martians) – because, after all, no one will rob a house while movement within it is obvious – to the way they build a series of Home Alone-inspired booby traps to dispatch the robbers.

If the point of the whole affair is to communicate Madison’s need to grow up just in time to leave the house, it seems odd that Bissell’s screenplay doesn’t really escape its own immature trappings. At least, that’s true until the ultimate destination of the climax, when it is revealed that one of the robbers is a cold, icy sociopath and the other is a hanger-on who is far too easily manipulable to pass as an antagonistic presence. The performances from Sonny Valicenti and Abbie Cobb as the two robbers are certainly inspired in the comic sense, but Bissell doesn’t know what to do with them amid these muddled and grimly ironic events, including a pretty gruesome head wound and a lot of earnest compositions in the music score.

It all adds up to a movie that has too much going on within a frame that would have supported much less and a director who had too much confidence in the tonal mishmash that, in the end, just comes across as a hodgepodge of warring elements. Bissell certainly has a way with structure, which remains propulsive throughout, and an eye for filmmaking, if the crisp and clean aesthetic elements are any indication. The problem with How to Deter a Robber is one that sometimes accompanies first-time features, though: an unbridled passion for material that collapses under the weight of too much going on.

A great deal of confidence both defines and, ultimately, undermines the promise of How to Deter a Robber.
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How to Betray a Movie
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