HOW TO DETER A ROBBER is the feature length debut from writer/director Maria Bissell which had its World Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival on Tuesday, September 29, 2020. The film centers around two teenagers who must fight their way out of a home invasion gone wrong. HOW TO DETER A ROBBER stars Vanessa Marano, Benjamin Papac, Chris Mulkey, Jonah Ray, and Gabrielle Carteris.
To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “Two teens playing amateur detectives get more than they bargained for when they investigate the wrong cabin in this darkly comedic romp.”
HOW TO DETER A ROBBER stars off with a holiday dinner gone wrong amid the growing strife between Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano) and her mother, Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris). After the tension reaches a crescendo, Vanessa and her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) decide to check out a vacant cabin next door after seeing a light go on. Deciding to spend some quality time with each other, Madison and Jimmy hang out at the house, smoke some weed, play with an Ouija board to summon a hodag (a cryptic native to Wisconsin), and eventually pass out. However, Jimmy is awoken in the middle of the night when someone enters the bedroom. Thinking that they summoned a hodag, he yells at it before eventually falling back asleep. However, when they awake, they find the place trashed and decide to call the police to investigate. It’s here that our story really picks up speed as Madison and Jimmy, along with Madison’s Uncle, Andy (Chris Mulkey), work to capture the culprits and clear their names.
Overall, I had quite a good time with HOW TO DETER A ROBBER. It has a similar beats to films like Home Alone, especially when Madison and Jimmy set up traps to try and catch the burglars. I admired their dedication to the cause even when their own traps backfire hilariously upon them. The film manages to weave a story that is both entertaining and funny with additional moments that elicit genuine concerns for the safety of our protagonists. When they do come face-to-face with the robbers, all hell breaks loose as the three of them they try to device a plan to survive the night. All of this takes place during the Christmas holiday which allows for an interesting juxtaposition between the supposed joyful holiday and the terror that awaits.
Vanessa Marano and Benjamin Papac are delightful to watch on screen, with genuine chemistry that flowed between the two even as things begin to fall apart, both with the robbery and their relationship. Chris Mulkey was able to encapsulate that grizzly feel of someone who has spent way too much time out in the wilderness. However, his skillset, along with the creative thinking of Madison and Jimmy, really showcased how two opposing generations could come together to work on solving the problem at hand. However, Sonny Valicenti and Abbie Cobb, who play the robbers, absolutely stole the show for me. Even though what Abbie is doing is wrong, she plays it off in a sweet-natured way that it makes it hard not to fall in love with her character. Abbie’s performance along with Vanessa, Benjamin, and Chris were some of my favorite moments of the film as it brought about lots of laughs. Meanwhile, Sonny looks like a straight up serial killer, which makes sense since he played ADT Serviceman, aka Dennis Rader, in David Fincher’s drama series, “Mindhunter“. Where Abbie was sunshine and rainbows, Sonny conveyed an icy terror that matched the chilling winter landscape of the area.
For her first feature film, Maria Bissell did an impressive job of melding the dark comedy aspects into a thrilling home-invasion story. My only real gripe with the film was I felt like there were too many storylines going at one, especially with Madison. In a way, this is a coming-of-age story as Madison, and ultimately Jimmy, learn more about themselves and what they want through this horrific experience. Bissell also did a fantastic job of using the snowy landscape as a means to show the viewer just how remote and stuck our protagonist are. A home-invasion is terrifying in and of itself but it’s even more harrowing to think about it happening in a place that is snowed in from everywhere else. Though I felt the pacing and multiple storylines were a bit much, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the overall movie.
HOW TO DETER A ROBBER is, oddly, for me, the feel-good home invasion thriller of the year. At a time when everything feels so dark and hopeless, it’s nice to have films such as this brighten things up. Not every film has to have a deep message, though there are indications of deeper themes at play. Sometimes it’s just nice to be entertained by a film for 90 minutes as a way to distract us from the outside world. It beckons the viewer to kick back and relax, to laugh at the ridiculous antics that unfold, and to cheer for the success of our protagonist. Who doesn’t want that?