Film Review: Homecoming

<i>Homecoming </i>is Exhibit A in how casting can make&#8212;or in this case, break&#8212;a genre picture.

Since remakes of old horror movies are all the rage these days, it was only a matter of time until someone got around to updating the 1962 camp classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the twilight of their iconic careers. Now that teenagers make up the bulk of the genre's target audience, chances are slim that they'd fork over good money to watch a pair of spinsters engage in psychological and physical warfare in a decrepit house. (That's a shame when you consider the limitless casting possibilities for a more faithful remake—Helen Mirren vs. Judi Dench! Rosemary Harris vs. Dianne Wiest!)

So rather than go with a pair of gray-haired grannies, the makers of Homecoming have reconceived the story as a battle of wills between two hot, nubile chicks (Mischa Barton and Jessica Stroup) and the dumb-as-nails stud (Matt Long) caught between them. It's a canny move that had the potential to yield rich commercial rewards had director Morgan J. Freeman picked the right two young actresses to pit against each other like, say, Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway or, if he was forced to go B-list, Jamie King and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Unfortunately, he settled for Barton and Stroup, refugees from the world of primetime teen soaps, where leading ladies are generally expected to model rather than act. Casting Barton in the Crawford role was a particularly bad move, as the ex-"O.C." starlet is about as menacing as an easily confused ferret, which is to say, not very.

Before it detours into Baby Jane land, Homecoming begins as an agreeably low-key small-town drama about Mike (Long), a former high-school football legend who returns home from Northwestern University with his new girlfriend Elizabeth (Stroup) in tow. He's barely been back for five minutes before he's forced to deal with some unfinished business: Apparently, his emotionally volatile ex-sweetheart Shelby (Barton) never got the memo that their break-up was permanent. Crushed to discover she's been replaced, Shelby nevertheless puts on a brave face for her first encounter with Elizabeth. Later that night, though, a series of unfortunate events—too much tequila, a fully booked motel, no cell-phone reception—leaves Elizabeth stranded by the side of a deserted road, where she's promptly knocked flat by Shelby's car. After locking her rival away in her isolated house, Shelby launches a full-scale campaign to win her boyfriend back by any means necessary.

From a purely technical standpoint, Homecoming is a cut above such recent studio-produced horror remakes as Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine. Screenwriter Katie Fetting has penned a surprisingly nuanced screenplay, while Freeman's visual style is refreshingly straightforward and attuned to the rhythms of small-town life. Some of the supporting actors deliver effective performances as well, most notably Michael Landes as Mike's cousin Billy, who has always nursed a crush on Shelby. But there's just no overcoming the two blanks at the center of the movie where actresses with strong personalities should be.