An unusual suspense thriller that rides the line of outright horror without going over, HOMECOMING has a surprisingly tight structure and some effective performances that elevate it above the usual. It gives former O.C. starlet Mischa Barton a little more to chew on dramatically and she delivers even when the script places some genuine howlers on the tip of her tongue.
Homecoming weekend is extra important for former high school football star, Mike (Matt Long): not only is he bringing his gorgeous college girlfriend Elizabeth (Jessica Stroup) home to meet his parents; the former town hero will also be presiding over a ceremony to retire his old jersey. Unfortunately, a trip home also means a reunion with high school sweetheart Shelby (Barton) who has taken over the family restaurant-bowling alley after nursing her mother through a protracted convalescence. Mike worries about Shelby’s reaction to his return, and with good reason; not only is Shelby still under the impression that they’re a couple, but she’s also utterly insane.
We were actually a little worried when we first met Liz and Mike, as both characters are well on the bad side of bland, but things perk up considerably once Shelby enters the picture. Resembling a somewhat sultrier Gwyneth Paltrow, Barton injects the proceedings with a welcome jolt of electricity, distracting the viewer from the screenplay’s ham-fisted revelantion of her fragile frame of mind – mere seconds after she reunites with Mike, we learn that she has been working on an addition to her house in preparation for their eventual family. Not only does this rob the story of a major bit of ‘is she/isn’t she crazy?’ dramatic tension that should otherwise last well into the middle portion of the film, but once Mike hears this particular proclamation, nothing on Earth should keep him from grabbing Liz and beating cheeks right out of there.
Of course they stay in the bar, and a suddenly composed Shelby comes out with a few complimentary rounds of drinks for the gang and a few private words for Liz on the importance of a first impression on Mike’s parents. Convinced that she’s too drunk to make that crucial first impression, she insists on being dropped off at a local hotel to sober up for the night and be fresh for the morning. Mike and his cousin (who also happens to be the local sheriff) drop Liz off at a motel, and rather inexplicably drive off just before Liz finds out that the Vacancy sign is broken, and that all the rooms have been sold out for the Homecoming weekend. Unable to get a cell phone signal (and since it’s an iPhone with AT&T service, it’s the one script contrivance we totally believe), Liz sets out walking to the next motel, three miles away. Meanwhile, Shelby has closed up her bar and is fighting back Mike-fuelled tears on the drive home when she accidentally hits a pedestrian walking along the side of the road – now guess who that turns out to be?
We were expecting a trite Fatal Attraction rip-off based on Homecoming‘s initial setup, and we were pleasantly surprised when the plot swerved off that well worn track, and into a teenage riff on Misery. It’s certainly novel, but (and we’re trying not to give away any major plot points) it could have benefited from not sticking so close to King’s plotline, right down to the well-timed appearance and eventual fate of a certain supporting character. Again, these scenes would have paid off more lucratively had the screenplay kept Shelby’s sanity under wraps for a bit longer, but the film is entertaining enough (particularly in the all too often grim world of DTV suspensers) that we found ourselves going with it, anyway.
The unfortunately named Morgan J Freeman shows an admirable lack of directorial hyperbole, wisely allowing Misha Barton’s performance to carry Homecoming. It might not be fair to call the rest of the cast weak, but their characters are much more closely tied to the screenplay’s iffy machinations. As a member of the local law enforcement community, cousin Billy ought to be a bit more concerned with Liz’s disappearance, making him (and frankly, most of the residents that we meet) seem like dullards. Homicidal rage notwithstanding, Shelby is definitely the brightest light in the entire town.
Not even one of horror’s hoariest coda-clichés can derail the otherwise suspenseful ending – a well earned fright fest that pushes the show into a pleasingly nasty territory into which we didn’t expect it to go. Solid directing and a single, voraciously entertaining performance is more than some summer blockbusters can boast, and with properly tuned expectations, Homecoming can make for a nicely diverting evening at the movies.
The screener that we were sent contained no extras, and will not, presumably, represent what the official home video release will look like. The film is about to begin a limited theatrical engagement on Friday, July 17th (other dates are available on the film’s official site) in New York and Los Angeles.
HOMECOMING (2009). Directed by Morgan J. Freeman. Written by Katie L. Fetting. Cast: Mischa Barton, matt Long, Jessica Stroup, Michael Landes, Allen Williamson, Joshua Elijah Reese, Nick Pasqual. Joe Forgione, Alex Hooper.