Movie Review: Homecoming (2009)

Opening in Limited Release on July 17

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While no one will ever accuse me of being a good chess player especially considering that I've never won a game in my life against anyone who'd ever played the game before-- the one thing I have learned (aside from the fact that I should never give up my day job to become the next female Bobby Fischer)-- is that it isn't a great idea to bring the queen out too early.

Although an aggressive and unexpected move involving the most powerful chess piece on the board is always interesting-- basically when you bring her out, you're leading the game into its final act by either launching into a brilliantly strategic offensive plan of attack or moving into the defensive and essentially just trying not to get killed and therefore give your opponent the upper hand.

And the same thing can definitely be said for horror films. For, when you reveal that one of your main characters isn't just slightly deranged but-- flat out, roller coaster off the tracks crazy at about the forty minute mark--then there's nowhere left to go from there and no more suspense you can possibly build because you've essentially just knocked your queen down before the king and forfeited the game. Simply put-- viewers who have seen more than one thriller in their life realize that the only way out of a situation such as the one presented in the film Homecoming will be in a body bag either for the victim or the she-devil holding her hostage.

Essentially when you have an innocent being held captive by a deranged nut-bar who irrationally still thinks she has a shot of getting her old boyfriend back by resorting to violence to get her way-- as a filmmaker you've just removed every single possible twist from your film and sent it directly into B-movie autopilot as a Generation Y hybrid of Swimfan, Fatal Attraction, Misery, and tons of films that have come before it. Storytelling-wise, it's a classic set-up of one character wants one thing and the other does not but when it's this obvious and this fast, it's an unbelievably disappointing waste of potential from a deft director and cast.

Yet, aside from some initially clunky dialogue wherein Elizabeth (90210's Jessica Stroup-- the new brainy girlfriend of an old hometown football hero-- describes going home to meet his folks to "such an important part of the courting ritual" as though we were transported to 1925, the movie begins painlessly enough as the handsome if bland athlete Mike (Matt Long) and Elizabeth leave their impressive, posh college surroundings to return to small town Pennsylvania to retire his old jersey.

Once arrived, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with Mike's cousin Billy (Michael Landes)-- a likable cop with a slight chip on his shoulder who at times can barely hide his resentment regarding the ridiculous amount of luck and good fortune that Mike's had throughout his life especially where his beautiful, seductively husky-voiced blonde homecoming queen ex-girlfriend Shelby (Mischa Barton) is concerned.

Whereas Billy always carried a torch for the girl that he felt Mike treated like dirt that most men would've died for-- as Billy tells her in a key scene-- we sense that things didn't really end on solid footing between the two former lovebirds. For, as we quickly discover-- after the beginning of the Fall semester, Shelby's bed-ridden mom had passed away, preventing her from accompanying her boyfriend of three years to school.

So instead she's inherited monstrous debt and accepted great responsibilities including running the family bowling lane/restaurant called The Alley and taking over her mom's rickety old two-story home which she's been trying to add onto in the hopes of making it big enough to start a family with Mike like he'd always wanted.

Although we're initially on Elizabeth's side and predisposed to hate the ex-- given this set of circumstances and her recent loss-- we feel initially sorry for Barton's well-played and admittedly deluded Shelby who still calls Mike her "guy" to the point that she throws herself in his arms when he returns.

Yet she masks her disappointment well-- even though we don't buy it for a minute-- and tosses back drinks with Elizabeth as the women bond over the fact that their boyfriend of the past and present has at least the sense of having good taste in women. However, when Elizabeth decides she doesn't want to make a bad impression and opts to stay at an inn for the night in order to meet his parents in the morning, things take a sinister turn.

Obviously, here you may be asking yourself (as did I) why at least the two hadn't made a cursory stop at Mike's home to drop off their suitcases, said a quick hello, or gone to the local homecoming high school football game along with the parents. But pushing this aside-- when Billy drops off Elizabeth at a local motel (again stupidly her boyfriend doesn't go with the ensure her safety in a town in which she's unfamiliar), she realizes that all the rooms have been taken by sports fans.

Left without a strong cell phone signal, she wheels out her suitcase on the road where a freak accident occurs and Elizabeth is struck by a genuinely distracted Shelby whose eyes had been off the road for a split second. And I must definitely tip my hat for this decision as being ingenious as it's to the credit of the several writers listed in the production notes to make the two female leads' run-in a fascinating horror twist wherein our would-be "villain" mistakenly hits the target she wanted (although as some psychoanalysts and Freudians would say there are no accidents).

However, instead of taking advantage of an out-of-left-field surprise of two characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time instead of a contrived showdown of say a person in a house on the phone and a killer on the other end of the line in Scream or Jason in the woods chasing a victim in Friday the 13th-- Homecoming just abandons the potential completely and reveals Barton's Shelby to be a cross between Kathy Bates in Misery and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction as she keeps Stroup's Elizabeth severely bedridden and away from Mike.

Sedating her with an IV and left over drugs from her mother's illness along with her own medical know how and cruel twists in "re-setting" the broken foot after Elizabeth dares to make a break for it-- predictably, the film becomes a silly mess of a girl obsessing over her first love.

And sure enough it comes complete with the stereotypical stalker room of photos and mementos and scenes wherein Shelby proves her devotion to Mike while tormenting another, padlocks a door, until she must go from IV drips to axes and other devices when Mike and others finally get a ticket to the clue bus far too late into the movie.

Perhaps had this become some sort of twisted Florence Nightingale film a la Inside or an interesting struggle wherein Elizabeth was the heavy-- anything to switch up the action-- it would've been far more entertaining but ultimately it's nothing we haven't seen countless times before.

Once upon a time and well before her turn on the popular series, The O.C., Mischa Barton was a terrifically talented independent film actress-- holding her own opposite such actors as Sam Rockwell in Lawn Dogs and other works and again she's easily the strongest asset to this film. We buy her character's conviction so genuinely that we're willing to forgive the gaps in logic and lame dialogue even when we realize that-- she doesn't just say that Shelby has taken on the personality and life of her mother after their experience-- given Barton's talent, she's miles ahead of the rest. And honestly we wonder just what the hell it is that she'd see in a bland character like Mike anyway since she acts Long and others off the screen.

Despite some above average production values by You Can Count on Me cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski, SherryBaby and The Deep End composers Peter Nashel and Jack Livesay, and The Baxter production designer Mark White-- basically by bring out the true colors of Barton's Shelby far too early, her homecoming queen is sacrificed in an uneven battle for the rest of its eighty-eight minute running time.

Furthermore, we realize that-- like a chess game where I'm one of the players-- we know exactly how Homecoming's going to end and unfortunately one solid surprise staged by those responsible isn't enough to make it worth the inevitable, cliched downfall of a high school graduate gone crazy for love. For a better surprise and a more refreshing structure of similar material-- check out the DVD release of the entire web series Prom Queen.

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