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Fantastic Fest 2020: “How to Deter a Robber” Film Review — Writer/Director Maria Bissell Makes a Confident Debut With Her Dark, Charming Home Invasion Comedy

Through teenage werewolves, decapitation compilations and restored late-’80s action extravaganzas, this year’s Fantastic Fest continued the fun tonight with the World Premiere of “How to Deter a Robber,” writer/director Maria Bissell’s debut feature that turns out to be one of the most charming home invasion movies ever made.

The Christmas season gets off to a bumpy start when two Wisconsin teenagers, Madison (Vanessa Marano) and her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), check in on the empty cabin next door when a light appears to be on. Having fallen asleep there, Madison and Jimmy wake up to find the place ransacked and demolished, making them primary suspects. Handed off to Madison’s Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey), the two litter the cabin with booby traps, “Home Alone”-style, should there be a similar break-in. Sure enough, tonight just happens to be the night that two robbers (Sonny Valicenti and Abbie Cobb) set their sights on their cabin, leaving Madison, Jimmy and Uncle Andy to figure a way out of this predicament. 

There’s definitely a lot to like here. The charm of “How to Deter a Robber” emanates from its very talented cast. Marano (“Dexter”) as the mischievous Madison comes with the whole “my family just doesn’t get me” package, complete with the awkward holiday strife at the dinner table. It isn’t a very original teenage archetype, but Marano’s straight-faced delivery makes it work. Her persevering demeanor when things start to go wrong, coupled with the occasional sardonic response, compliments Papac (“Greenhouse Academy”) as the sweetly supportive boyfriend who tends to let his naivete get in the way of things. And it was definitely nice to see “Twin Peaks” alum Chris Mulkey getting in on the fun. 

Vanessa Marano (L) and Benjamin Papac in “How to Deter a Robber”

The first 30 seconds tell you everything you need to know about the two burglars, who are grabbing valuables, smashing stuff and leaving a ketchup-stained mess for the hell of it. Valicenti (“Mindhunter”) is well-suited as head of the break-in; he gets annoyed so easily it only hinders what should have been an in-and-out job. But it’s Cobb (“Suburgatory”) who emerges as the unassuming scene-stealer Christine, playing the soft-spoken partner-in-crime who’s so polite she can’t help but compliment her captives with a rifle pointed in their direction. And she does it with the utmost sincerity. One of Christine’s acts of kindness, in particular, led to a reaction shot so funny I had to pause the screener because I couldn’t stop laughing. The timing on this gag is impeccable.

Bissell displays just as many wonderful qualities in her writing as she does in her directing. In addition to emulating brisk information delivery straight from the Edgar Wright school of quick cuts, “How to Deter a Robber” is really smart at keeping the whole dark affair surprisingly lighthearted. The trio take being robbed for real exceptionally well. In Bissell’s laid back screenplay, she’s able to naturally twist a situation that would be, under any other circumstance, a traumatic ordeal, to work within a healthy blend of cheeky laughs, bouncy soundtrack cues and underlying danger. She shows great promise, and I cannot wait to see what she does next. 

Benjamin Papac (L) and Vanessa Marano in “How to Deter a Robber”

“How to Deter a Robber” never reaches the genius framing of “Fargo,” but it absolutely wears its inspiration on its sleeve. Down to the snowy, desolate landscapes, it emulates a similarly present level of nonchalance regarding the casual presentation of a dark scenario gone hilariously wrong, precipitated by the tiniest of dumb decisions. Every once in a while, the film will  present a visual nod to the Hodag, a green Wisconsin folklore beast whose ceramic figurine may or may not be causing them to experience the string of misfortunes that befall them.

I can see myself revisiting this one around the holiday season. It doesn’t push the envelope hard enough on either end, maintaining a laid-back mood that makes for easy viewing. “How to Deter a Robber,” nevertheless, is a fun time and puts enough of a personal, charming touch on the home invasion subgenre to make it worthwhile for some big laughs.  

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Featured Image: (L-R) Vanessa Marano, Chris Mulkey and Benjamin Papac in “How to Deter a Robber”

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