Roost Review: A Deeply Uncomfortable Film Full Of Bad Choices [TIFF]

The idea of a grown man having sex with a teenage girl is disturbing. This is — sort of — the point of "Roost." I think? It's never really clear what the thriller is trying to say. To be honest, I may have just missed the memo: partway through this film, my urge to crawl out of my skin was so strong that I think my soul left my body. When it was all over, I stumbled out of the theater in a haze, mumbling apologies to those I bumped into, desperately searching for a dark quiet corner to silently scream in private.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Roost" is a drama about a young 16-year-old girl who falls in love with a much older man via FaceTime. Why she didn't clue in that he was older by the glaringly obvious signs (like, you know, his face) is a mystery. Maybe she was blinded by his flattery of her poetry. Maybe he had a really good filter setting smoothing out those crow's feet. Maybe it's just bad writing.

Almost immediately, there are warning signs about this relationship (and also, arguably, the movie itself). The film opens with Anna (Grace Van Dien) talking to Eric (Kyle Gallner) on the phone. He is gushing over her mediocre poetry in his creepy, croaky, decidedly-adult-sounding voice, comparing her to Emily Dickinson. Immediately, I was reminded of that scene in "Annie Hall" when Woody Allen's character tries to show off how smart he is by quoting Dickinson's poetry. I'm not sure if this was the intended reading of this scene (I'm almost certain it wasn't), but given the subject matter — yikes.

So, so uncomfortable

"Roost" is probably the most uncomfortable I've ever felt in a movie theatre, and I attended a screening of "Salò." As soon as the film revealed that Eric was 28 years old, there was a collective squirm that reverberated throughout the audience, and this basically continued at varying intensities for the remainder of the film (which somehow felt so much longer than 90 minutes). Several men stood up and just left. It wasn't even the usual, apologetic, crouched down, trying to get out of there as quietly as possible exit — these guys jumped up and practically ran out. This trend continued as the movie progressed too; while it wasn't exactly a mass exodus, it was more than I've ever seen. 

The story in "Roost" is clearly unsavory, at best, but that isn't really the issue — controversial topics can make for some very daring, groundbreaking cinema. Heck, Stanley Kubrick practically made a career on that, between "A Clockwork Orange" and "Lolita." No, the problem here is that the writing is weak, and Amy Redford's direction is all over the place. There are a lot of choices one has to make when filming a movie, and Redford subsequently made bad ones. Within typical Hollywood editing conventions, viewers shouldn't really notice the editing, but in "Roost," many of the shots and transitions were just so odd that they stand out. Half the film feels like an ill-fated Chevy ad campaign that got someone fired. Are the shots pretty? Yes. But why have Eric — the creepy man who drove 900 miles to have sex with a teenager — stand in a kind of cool, sexy pose in front of his pickup truck? Why score their scenes with the kind of gentle acoustic music and bright, soft-focus shots popular in indie romances? You're never sure how you're supposed to feel about what's happening onscreen, which only makes the story that much more difficult to sit through.

The acting in "Roost" is, for the most part, mediocre. Summer Phoenix plays the mother Beth. It's a big role and she doesn't quite sell it like she needs to. Beth's husband-to-be, the police officer Tim, is played Jesse Garcia. In another strange choice, Tim is very accepting and understanding of the grown man in his fiancee's house who just slept with his teenage, soon-to-be step-daughter. I've met many police officers in my life (my father was one) and uh, that's not how any of them would react to that situation. Hell, that's not even how the men in the audience reacted to that situation, and they had sexy truck poses and acoustic guitar telling them "Hey, maybe this guy is okay actually!"

To his credit, I actually enjoyed Gallner's performance. Yes, it crosses over into the realm of "Room"-worthy melodramatics at times, but I feel that is more a failure of the direction than the actor. Van Dien is great, considering the material. We already know she can act thanks to "Stranger Things." if "Roost" deserves any credit, it's giving the talented young actor an opportunity to shine. She does a very good job of communicating the character's inner thoughts and nuances. Watching her, I found myself reminiscing about my own reckless teenage crushes, and how head-over-heels I'd feel for basically any cute girl or guy who noticed me. It was a welcome — if brief — reprieve from the movie.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10