How to Deter a Robber. 2020.
Directed & Written by Maria Bissell.
Starring Vanessa Marano, Benjamin Papac, Abbie Cobb, Leah Lewis, Chris Mulkey, Gabrielle Carteris, Sonny Valicenti, Jonah Ray, Nikki Crawford, Deanna Rooney, & Arnold Y. Kim.
Not Rated / 85 minutes
Comedy / Crime
DISCLAIMER: The following article contains SPOILERS!
I’m not a huge comedy fan, so when a comedy really gets to me it’s always a treat. How to Deter a Robber feels under cooked, but never enough to spoil the fun. Maria Bissell wrote and directed this hilarious little film that looks at the troubles of growing up and the intrusion of adult realities upon youth. This is Bissell’s first feature film. Judging by her work here she has a knack for quirky comedy and awkward drama.
The story centres on Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano), a somewhat adrift young woman trying to figure out where the rest of her life’s headed. Her boyfriend Jimmy Culpepper (Benjamin Papac) is a sweet kid but the emphasis on kid is what seems to bother Madison. When they end up checking on a neighbour’s house over the holidays they wind up falling asleep. They wake the next day to see the place has been robbed under their noses. Police are suspicious of the pair. That is, until Madison and Jimmy are stuck staying with her Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) and find themselves in the middle of another robbery.
How to Deter a Robber is very funny, and though it feels like there’s something missing that doesn’t mean the film isn’t enjoyable. Marano, Papac, and Mulkey are a perfect trio together, each playing off the other’s energy. Bissell uses the robbery setup as a way to explore what happens to someone having trouble growing up when they’re forced into a highly adult, dangerous situation. Although I’m not sure the plot is resolute in its aims by the end, I still believe Bissell creates a compelling story that’s endearing, engaging, and worth more than a few laughs.
I love when filmmakers use the holidays as a backdrop for a family having troubles. Such a juxtaposition of the saccharine holiday mood and the real lives of people. Here, the two clash. Later in the film Bissell gets into ideas of class, seeing as how Madison’s family are very bougie. At the start she focuses on a sort of universal scene to which many can relate, where we see that despite Madison’s lack of overt ambition she lives in a suffocating world. Her mother’s more hateful than encouraging, taking every chance to cut her daughter down. She also plays a part in ruining the turkey dinner and chooses to let Madison take all the blame herself. However, Madison may be eighteen but hasn’t yet quite grown up, not doing much other than currently relying on her bourgeois parents for everything.
How to Deter a Robber‘s biggest theme is a clash of childish worlds and the adult world. Madison wants to seem responsible and adult, yet sneaks off after holiday dinner with her boyfriend to break into a house, albeit with good intentions, then get high and paint their faces. Maybe the best contrast between Madison and Jimmy’s childish world and the adult world is when they rig the house to repel intruders. Home Alone-like booby traps get setup around the house by Madison and Jimmy. Andy sees it as useless. Instead, Uncle Andy introduces these two sorely irresponsible teens to guns, quickly determining they’re better off with BB guns. Introducing a gun is significant, signifying a break from the world of teen slackers and entering a decidedly adult existence for which Madison and Jimmy are unprepared.
Bissell uses the robbery as a way to illustrate how traumatic events can potentially prompt personal growth, as well as reveal truths about the people who go through them. The entire situation with the robbers at the lake, and the robbery being slept through, forces Madison and Jimmy into an isolated environment. Because of that isolation Madison turns inward psychologically. She begins to question her life path, and especially begins to question her relationship with Jimmy. She wonders if Jimmy isn’t mature enough for her. This soon leads Madison to see Jimmy’s no more immature than herself. It also forces Jimmy to be truthful about his feelings, too. Not quite sure Madison or Jimmy learn anything truly transformational by the end of their journey. They’ve at least had their teen existences shaken.
Again, we go back to the idea of Madison and Jimmy having their childish world intruded on by the adult world that’s waiting for them when they move out of their parents’ houses. There’s a significant class element to Bissell’s film. Madison is forced out of her comfortable bourgeois world by the working class robbers systematically invading the lakeside cabins. One of the robbers admonishes Madison late in the film, telling her he knows her type who’ve “never worked a day” and had everything given to him. He isn’t wrong, either. Madison’s our protagonist, that doesn’t mean she’s meant to be perfect. The main point of the film, in my mind, is that Madison’s being taught an existential lesson meant to break her free of her bourgeois and childish bonds alike. The best way Bissell represents this is in the inclusion of Hodag. The legends of Hodag are actually all nonsense, linked to a hoax. They represent an adult childishness, which Madison and Jimmy run with, going so far as to paint their faces green while doing a seance. The Hodag tale and the green face paint is echoed later in the Hodag-style masks the robbers wear. This moment becomes a return of the childish in adult form as a test for the two young, immature lovers.
I do think the ending needed something more. Madison remains in slightly the same place even after everything’s happened. And that’d be fine if it didn’t seem as if Madison was meant to learn something from the experience. That’s not to say she doesn’t change, somewhat. But How to Deter a Robber has a feeling of being incomplete the way it ends, and I wish it didn’t because the story holds so much potential. Either way, I’m excited for whatever Bissell does next because she shows a lot of talent here, along with an awesomely strange sense of humour.
How to Deter a Robber remains an intriguing exploration of what happens when a young person finally experiences an event in their life that shatters the illusions of youth. Madison and Jimmy have a brush with death and violence that shakes the foundations of their slacker lives. It’s an allegory that fits many peoples lives when they’re young. Not everyone automatically knows what they want to do, nor are they sure of what they can do— took me until age thirty to realise I could legitimately make a career out of writing. Sometimes it takes a life-changing moment for us to figure out our place as we make our way from being a teenager to adulthood. For certain people, that’s a deep talk with someone they respect, or an epiphany of a moment where their purpose suddenly dawns on them. Or, like Madison and Jimmy, it could take coming face-to-face with gun-wielding robbers. Hopefully not, though.