Romi (2023)

Rating: C-

Dir: Robert Cuffley
Star: Alexa Barajas, Pavel Kríz, Juan Riedinger, Shannon Leahy

There seem to have been a good few of these “mad house-sitting AI” films lately, which isn’t a sub-genre I ever expected to see. It’s not particularly original. Back in 1999, Levar Burton of all people directed Smart House, a TV movie for kids starring Katey Sagal, with a not dissimilar theme. But with the rise of assistants like Siri and Alexa, as well as concern about AI, the topic has been pushed to the forefront. It probably doesn’t hurt that these stories, typically shot almost entirely in one location and with a limited cast, lend themselves nicely to post-COVID protocols. Most recently, we had Blank, and now this Tubi Original: though I should probably have quotes around the second word.

Maddie (Barajas) is involved in a hit-and-run accident, and to avoid embarrassing her politician mother (Leahy), is sent out of town for a bit. This puts her in the house designed by Hertig (Kriz), which is run by the titular AI, in charge of everything from security, through ordering groceries, to playing mood music [Maddie’s two favourite bands are Nirvana and “the Old Time Monks”. Guess which one does NOT appear on the soundtrack?]. Here to help is Hertig’s tech guy, Barkley (Riedinger), who seems to have a thing for Maddie, and brings her weed. This is despite her medicated state, reluctance to be there, and penchant for panic attacks – as and when necessary to the plot, naturally.

It’s not long before things get odd, both in and outside the house, with lurking shadows, mysterious system glitches and crows committing suicide against the windows. Is this related to the mysterious disappearance a year previously of Hertig’s wife, Irina, the AI’s voice? Hardly the worst spoiler to say: of course, it is. But are we dealing with a self-aware and vengeful AI, a more traditional haunted house, or something in the middle? Well, it’s not difficult to work out who’s the main culprit, given the limited range of suspects. There are basically four characters present, and once you rule out Maddie and her mother, the options become even more restricted. Again, barely a spoiler to say it’s the bitter incel cliché.

Apart from the predictability, it doesn’t help that Maddie simply isn’t very interesting or likable. The accident is caused by her being distracted by her phone, and she seems no more than your basic privileged bitch. The rest of the cast hardly fare better: with all his awkward mannerisms, Barkley might as well have “IT guy” tattooed on his forehead. The best character here may be the plucky automatic vacuum cleaner which tries to clue Maddie in (top), only to be all but ignored. I hope it gets its own franchise: The Brave Little Roomba. It’s something I hadn’t seen before and is the kind of original idea, which the movie needs more. Sure this won’t be the last in the genre, and it definitely won’t be the best.