They say that after high school you can't truly go home again, and that old expression holds especially true if you have a psycho hose beast for an ex-girlfriend, and you're traveling with your hot new arm candy. That's the basic re-tilled lesson learned in the moderately engaging new thriller Homecoming, a sort of junior varsity level Misery that earns some begrudging respect for embracing its streamlined agenda of entertainment, and not trying too hard to be something it has neither the scope nor nuance to be.

The story centers around jock Mike (Matt Long, of The Deep End), the star athlete/prodigal son of a small Northeastern town who's now buried on the quarterback depth chart during his first semester at college. Returning home during a bye week to have his high school jersey honored/retired, Mike brings along Elizabeth (Jessica Stroup, above), a pretty city girl whom he's recently started dating. Mike's genial cousin Billy (Michael Landes), a local cop, tips him off that Mike's ex-girlfriend Shelby (Mischa Barton), now the sole owner/operator of an inherited family restaurant, seems to think they're still dating. Mike's instinct is to steer clear, but Elizabeth wants to try to play nice, so they head straight to Shelby's place for some local color and drinks. Elizabeth ends up getting a bit tipsy and, not wanting to make a poor first impression on Mike's parents, convinces him to let her grab a hotel room for the night. One unfortunate mishap later, Elizabeth is hit by a car, and Shelby takes her into her house, under the twisted guise of nursing her back to health.

Directed by Morgan J. Freeman (no, not this Morgan Freeman), Homecoming is attractively cast, and helped immeasurably by being rooted in an honest sense of place. I suppose news of Barton's recent involuntary psychiatric hold could color one's opinion of the movie, or make for an easy set for of smashing critical derision, but I found her performance here to be of a piece with the rest of the film, even if weighed down somewhat by a weird, generically provincial accent. She's certainly aided by a screenplay that doesn't dawdle with split narrative focus, preciously over-sketched detail or coy ambiguity. The movie makes no bones about Shelby's psychosis; she wields an axe (indoors!) and tries to needle a drugged-up Elizabeth by trying on lingerie and announcing her coital intentions for the forthcoming evening.

Perhaps it's the fact that Homecoming is written by a female (Method screenwriter Katie Fettig), or maybe it's just the basic gender-based inversion of the narrative, in which both captor and captive sport extra X chromosomes, but there seems to be at least an attempt to keep the film from going too over the top in its violence — to make it tilt more toward realism than fancifulness. Well, until Shelby takes a ceramic toilet bowl tank top to the head, and then covers up the gash with some remarkably quick-concealing pancake make-up.

The other strikes against Homecoming, though, are for the most part only mid-grade irritants (Mike agreeing to see Shelby for a private lunch even though Elizabeth is missing and he hasn't heard from her, for instance, or one character refusing to act definitively in self-defense once they finally gain advantage in a brawl), contrivances that come with the genre. These story problems aren't ever expected to be solved, though, because the core audience for whom Homecoming was made has absolutely no interest in an extra 15 or 20 minutes in which conflict is more diffuse and parceled out, less physical. Much like its real life namesake, Homecoming isn't age-appropriate for everyone, then — maybe just those in high school, or barely removed. Others will likely find the familiarity more humdrum than effectively nostalgic. To visit the film's web site, click here. (Paper Street/Animus Films, R, 88 minutes)


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