Setting a film during the Christmas season is an easy way to make a so/so story more relevant because it could always become an alternative holiday classic for some viewers. This probably won’t happen with “How to Deter a Robber,” a goofy campfire-style tale turned dark thriller that is a little too timid to pack a real punch. It’s not very memorable, the plot is dull, and the coming-of-age theme set within the parameters of a robbery never hits its potential.
Teen couple Madison (Vanessa Marano) and Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) are spending the holidays at her family cabin in the woods, all set for an uneventful few days. When they notice a light on in the vacant house next door, the pair head over to investigate. Enjoying some privacy in the empty home, they drink a little too much and pass out in the bedroom. The next morning, they wake up and realize the house has been robbed. A series of burglaries have cropped up all over town and now that Jimmy and Madison are the prime suspects, they aren’t allowed to leave the area and must bunk with their grumpy Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) until the case is solved.
The film has a slow set-up where not much happens. It starts out as a fun comedy with amusing throwbacks to movies like “Home Alone” (Madison and Jimmy set a series of bargain-basement, Kevin McCallister-style booby traps with everyday objects like paint cans and bubble wrap in case the robbers show up), and it makes you think the setup will ramble into funnier territory — but the laughs never materialize. It’s disappointing considering writer / director Maria Bissell works so hard at setting up a comedic outline early in the film.
There’s a dramatic shift in tone which is at first welcome, but it quickly feels out of place by the time something finally happens in the story. The majority of the film is too lighthearted to feel like there are any real stakes at play here, but there’s finally a bit of drama when the trio becomes the robbers’ next victims.
As is the norm in home invasion movies, the characters make a lot of rookie mistakes while hiding out, and they do plenty of stupid things. It’s entertaining for a little while, but then lingers in a limbo that transpires when a writer simply doesn’t know how to end their story.
“How to Deter a Robber” never becomes truly thrilling, and the idea and narrative never come full circle.