{Movie Review} A Celebration of Fantastic Fest Teaches Us ‘How to Deter a Robber’

Fantastic Fest has worked hard to cultivate a stellar but quirky sense of its programming. The festival thrives when audience goers leave a screening and meet with their friends at The Highball and convince them that the film they just watched could not really fit into a category or genre but it was still a favorite. For me last year it was the coming of age film WYRM. Not really science fiction, not really horror, maybe a comedy….maybe. This year the film that I will recommend to the normies in my life will be How to Deter a Robber. Robber seems to be a bit like if Home Alone was directed by the Coen Brothers. Is it a Home Invasion horror film….maybe…probably not. Maybe its a cold drama with a ton of mirth…..maybe…..but not entirely. Is it an extra long episode of Community based in a cabin….now we are getting closer. That later comparison may also be why I liked it as much as I did.

Madison (Vanessa Marano) and Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) are visiting family for the holidays when a series of events they kind of sort of caused end up with them under house arrest. They may or may not be the suspects in a series of burglaries. They end up in cabin with Andy who maybe a bit goofy but whose paternal instincts usually comes from a good place but are often realized with less than ideal results. When the real robbers try to break in the three must figure out how to survive the onslaught while bringing the criminals to justice.

The script is absolutely one of the best I have encountered this year. Each line seems to further elucidate a character. As we get to know these characters each of them becomes more charming and delightful. Marano anchors these performances by channeling her inner Alison Brie. She is smart, and eccentric. Dare I even say weird. So pretty much awesome.

The relationship she has with Jimmy feels both authentic and genuine. Jimmy isn’t perfect. In fact their relationship is probably not built to last but it does reflect some of the early adult relationships that seem functional but not exactly right. Every relationship doesn’t end with nasty breakups. Most end with the simple realization that there are other qualities that may be missing from the partner we are with. Jimmy is sweet and nice but wildly naïve and often not helpful. He is boyfriend material but maybe not life partner material? This is their relationship. Even when Marano comes to that same conclusion the sadness we feel is just a hue–a hint–you can see the seed of the breakup but its meant as one more way she is growing. That growth comes to a head in the third act and Marano’s performance leaves no doubt who we are rooting for.

Courtesy of Ratajack Productions

The home invasion element of this film is mostly played for laughs even though there are clearly villains (namely the titular robbers). There is a direct homage to Home Alone/Mousetrap that was an utter delight. When some of it works I think the characters seem almost as surprised as the audience. Even the cat and mouse game that takes place later defuses most of the tension with quips and comedy. That is not a knock. That is essentially what makes the genre of How to Deter a Robber, so difficult to pinpoint. It has elements of a thriller but is not interested in making the audience feel terrible uneasy.

This is writer/director Maria Bissell’s first feature film and I am really interested to see what comes next from her. The confidence of which the film weaves between these different classifications so easily while maintaining its warm story made it a ton of fun to watch. Robber felt of these different groups but never from one in particular. Watcher beware though if a Coen brother movie seems too talky for you then you might have issues with Robber. It is dialogue heavy but that dialogue serves a greater purpose. If you are down for that greater purpose than you will find the movie as charming as I did.

XYZ films has picked up How to Deter a Robber. Its short run time (a mere 85 minutes) and fun ensemble make it a fun film to gamble on. Check it out, you just might learn something.

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