Amy Redford’s film What Comes Around has a symbolic meaning attached to its title. It lays out the fact that whatever we do in life always comes back to haunt us in the end. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that life is a circle where every stage has its own challenges. Adapted from Scott Organ’s stage play titled “The Thing With Feathers,” the narrative tries to explore how a single incident has the capacity to leave a long-lasting psychological impact on our lives. Especially if such a setback occurs during our formative years.
In the film, we come across two such incidents. One incident happens with Eric (or Jesse, because that’s his real name), and the second one involves Beth Donovan’s own daughter, Anna. Ironically, both of these lives are connected to Beth’s, who can be seen as an antagonist in What Comes Around. It is with her lies that she destroys two lives. During the moment of conflict, she tries to escape the situation by thinking about herself and her own future. But Beth fails to realize that her statement could ruin a teenager’s life forever and send him into such a dark pit that he will never be able to recover. Most of us believed that Jesse was the psychopath here, but he was just struggling with his own demons.
Jesse wanted someone to hold him and gather his scattered self. To tell him once that his life hasn’t come to an end. Jesse wanted love, but Beth had none to offer. For a teenager, love is the most wonderful feeling in the world. But if you look at it as an adult, the feeling gets bogged down by the pragmatic nuances of the word and gets dismissed as a “crush.” Jesse was a lover, but Beth was the practical one. She wanted to save her family (her daughter, to be precise), while Jesse wanted something that wasn’t possible in a normal world. So, let’s look into the story of Jesse and Beth in What Comes Around and explain the meaning of its ending.
What Is The Film About?
Beth Donovan is a single mother who stays with her 16-year-old daughter, Anna, in a small community, probably somewhere near Park City, Utah (because that’s where most of the film is shot). Through conversation, we find out that Anna doesn’t get out of the house much and spends most of the time in her room, immersed in books. She has perhaps made her room her safe haven and decorated it with all her heart. Beth, on the other hand, used to be a schoolteacher but perhaps changed towns and now works as a real estate agent. Her husband, Gary, walked out on the family when Anna was just 4, so she doesn’t really know who her father was. He didn’t even try to communicate with her either. After years of singlehood, Beth has started dating Tim, who works as an assistant chief of police in the same town.
Coming back to Anna, we can understand the reason for her loneliness and detachment from the world. Growing up without a father figure might have left a deep emotional scar, because of which she has trouble connecting with people. However, thanks to social media, she is able to fully express herself on internet forums, and that’s where she meets a guy who introduces himself as Eric. Over the phone, they talk about Emily Dickinson’s poems all night, and we can see that Anna is slowly growing fond of him. On Anna’s 17th birthday, Eric suddenly shows up at her doorstep to surprise her, and after a bit of hesitation, Anna decides to meet him. There are two points to mention here. Eric is 28, almost 11 years older than her, and he evidently lied about his age on the phone. Secondly, Eric lives some 900 miles away from Anna, and she doesn’t know a thing about him or his family. Because of this, she is hesitant to meet him in real life. But being a teenager is complicated; you’re never sure what decision you’re going to make next. Spontaneity is the word, if that explains the phase better.
Anna hugs Eric near his car, and they soon end up in Anna’s bed on her birthday. Things move forward at a pace one can only imagine, and soon, Anna opens up about her relationship and blurts everything out to her mom, Beth, and her fiancé, Tim. Both are shaken to the core, as they should be, but Anna convinces her mother to let her meet Eric once. The revelation of her daughter having an older boyfriend didn’t affect Beth as much as the face of the man from her past with whom she had once shared a spark. Yes, Beth knew Eric, and he had once been her student at the academy. The two were romantically and physically involved until their relationship became a scandal, and Beth had to cut all ties in order to save herself from prison. So why did Eric/Jesse invade Beth’s new life after so many years? Is he looking for revenge, or is it something else?
What did Jesse Want?
None of the shots we saw in What Comes Around ever found Jesse inside a house he could call his own. The only roof over his head was his parent’s house, and we believe he didn’t want to go there because he used to sleep and eat only in his truck. Jesse had been alone, and he was looking for closure that only Beth could give him, but she didn’t want to talk to the man from her past.
Some 12 years ago, Beth used to be a teacher at an academy where Jesse was still a student. During this time, Beth was in a conflicted relationship with her husband, Gary. He was cheating on her and was abusive, because of which Beth might have been looking for love and comfort outside the marriage. Beth and Jesse got close, paving the way for an emotional and physical relationship until the rumors spread (probably).
The management accused Beth of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with her student and started an inquiry. In her defense, Beth told the management that Jesse was troubled, delusional, and needed treatment. Beth blamed it all on Jesse, telling everyone that Jesse imagined everything that happened between them and had been weaving fiction in his head. Beth had to do this because if she had confessed to having a physical relationship with Jesse, she would have ended up in jail and would have lost her daughter forever. In order to save her family, she lied. Jesse, on the other hand, failed to understand why Beth betrayed him. Being a teenager, he had genuine feelings for her and would have done anything in his power to protect her, but Beth’s lie destroyed him completely. His parents started to look down on him and never trusted him again. We believe he was thrown out of the school after Beth’s accusations and was never able to attend any institution again.
All these years, Jesse had been trying to find Beth until he came across her daughter, Anna, on the internet. In order to re-enter Beth’s life, Jesse befriended Anna and became close to her so that he could force Beth to confess the truth. Perhaps he wanted to take revenge on her too, but in the end, it was all about finding truth and closure.
What Was Jesse’s Final Act?
Right from the beginning, Jesse’s plan was to do the same thing to Anna that Beth had done to him in the past. On the day of Beth’s wedding with Tim, Jesse convinced Anna to run away with him, but before that, he wanted a final confrontation. As Jesse came to the house, he revealed to Beth that she could lose her daughter forever, and therefore, it was her last chance to come clean. Jesse wanted Beth to confess that they had a physical relationship back in the day and that it wasn’t just a figment of his imagination. He wanted to prove to himself that he wasn’t mad.
In order to get the truth out of Beth, Jesse tried to manipulate her. So far, he had tried everything else in his power to get the words out of her, but when it all failed, he played the emotional card. He told her that maybe he was the one at fault here. Inside Jesse’s head, Beth always had long hair on the night she made love to him, but in the photograph that he saw in Anna’s room, Beth had short hair. The picture was taken in the spring, when Beth had suddenly disappeared from Jesse’s life.
Jesse got hysterical and started to believe that maybe he had been delusional all along. However, looking at Jesse’s devastated state, Beth finally confessed the truth and recalled the memories that they made together in the car. She told Jesse that whatever he remembers about them together is what actually happened between them. But she couldn’t reveal the truth to anyone, or she would have ended up in jail. We believe that she might have cut her hair short in order to make Jesse believe that whatever he remembered never actually took place. But Jesse has been struggling with that memory for so long that he has yearned for closure. Jesse finally revealed to Beth that he’d recorded the entire conversation and would use it to destroy her life just like she destroyed his. No one ever believed him, but now, with evidence in hand, he would be able to fix his life. However, that was when Anna intervened. She requested that Jesse let bygones be bygones and bury the past, as revenge wouldn’t solve anything for anyone.
During What Comes Around‘s ending, Jesse left the recorder on the table, gesturing that he wouldn’t be using the evidence to send her to prison. She might not have feelings left for Jesse, but Jesse still loves her. But if we talk about revenge, Jesse did get it in the end. Anna was madly in love with Jesse, just like he had been with Beth. Jesse perhaps wanted Beth to see her daughter suffer for a lover, just like he did (or still does). Hence, before leaving the house, Jesse told Anna, “I’ll see you in a bit.” Ironically, these were the same words that Beth had spoken to Jesse over the phone before she completely disappeared from his life. At that moment, he needed her the most, but like everyone around him, even she turned him down. Anna failed to understand why Jesse did that to her, but Beth could very well articulate that what one does in life always comes around.
In the ending sequence, Beth drives Anna to Tim’s house, where they are waiting for the wedding party. However, what Beth realized in the closing sequence is that Jesse might have left her alone, but his impact on Anna’s life will be visible forever. Anna would always have a grudge against her mother for destroying her life because she wasn’t brave enough to speak the truth. The impact was still less in comparison to what Jesse had dealt with all his life, yet his last act was to give Beth a taste of her own medicine. At this point, we believe that Jesse loved Anna just like he loved Beth, but because of Beth, he walked out of her life, never to appear again. Or maybe he will, and if Beth had learned anything from this entire thing, then she would let Anna and Jesse have a happy life together somewhere out of her shadow.