USA (104 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Vincent Grashaw Official site
Another film that attempts to raise the level of social awareness, highlighting the level of abuse taking place from the privatization of juvenile detention centers that seemingly answer to no one, as they are not regulated by the state, where parents often send their kids away to these remote wilderness camps under near military rule because they can’t deal with their out-of-control behavior, thinking a little discipline will do them good. Little do they know that the operators running the facilities are more out of control than anyone could imagine, literally placing these kid’s lives at risk. Perhaps hoping to cash in on the festival circuit success of Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013), a film of near documentary social realism that explored the volatile nature of abused teenage patients in a residential treatment facility, crafted by someone who had first-hand experience working in similar facilities, while here the story developed from a friend of the directors who was sent to a reform facility and is supposedly inspired by real events. Grashaw was the producer and co-editor of BELLFLOWER (2011), a low budget Sundance film with extremely violent overtones, while directing, co-writing (with Mark Penney), and co-producing this film. While the subject here is intriguing, as is the lead performance by first time actor P.J. Boudousqué (whose resemblance to Ryan Gosling likely got him the job), the heavy handed approach used by the director emphasizes and exaggerates a level of sadism by the sergeants in control that becomes sickening, bordering on torture porn when they intentionally target infected wounds, refusing to treat a major injury properly, cruelly inflicting methods of torture as part of their routine brand of punishment. One questions the fascination with the gruesome aspects of the details, prolonging the uncomfortable factor in many of these scenes, emphasizing the unendurable pain along with the helplessness of these individuals, like the intentional shock effects in exploitation prison B-movies. “We are in the business of transformation,” they are told once they arrive to the facility, but instead they are brutally bullied and tortured into blind obedience, using military style techniques to break down any lingering effects of individuality, where the counselors on the grounds are former inmates themselves.
Because of the film’s insistence upon continually emphasizing the cruelty of those men in charge, the film takes on a one-dimensional tone of evil, never developing any levels of characterization or complexity, but leaving those men as little more than cardboard cut outs, spewing the same venom throughout the entire film. They are not shown as being human, but individuals that thrive on inflicting misery onto others, as if this is the only fact that matters to them or offers meaning to their otherwise empty lives. More than likely these are ex-military men who were never able to make the transition to peacetime, who continue fighting their own embattled inner demons, but the director refuses to explore any hint of humanity in men who are only shown to be monsters. Instead the film is shown through a stream-of-conscious style through the eyes of a lone individual, Brad Lunders (Boudousqué), who’s seen initially as a brash young kid with a cute girlfriend (Stephanie Simbari), but he’s a lowlife that deals in drugs and gets involved with the wrong people, which eventually leads to disastrous consequences. Kidnapped in the middle of the night by those that run this boot camp, where his clueless mother yells “I love you” as they haul him away in the back of a van to a remote juvenile prison facility that is 25-miles from the nearest town. After hearing the gung-ho speech from Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns), a former marine, it’s clear that whatever deluded mission these men aspire to, they are really sadistic control freaks that enjoy the unfettered power they have over what amounts to kidnapped kids, where they see their jobs as making them miserable on a daily basis, rousting them out of bed at the crack of dawn, forcing them to run long runs in the desert heat without water, and then punishing those who can’t keep up, from taking away privileges to locking them up for days on end in a detention center where they are brutally tortured. While the graphic reality sinks in, a backstory is filled in via flashbacks, where we see scenes of Brad’s earlier life spiraling out of control, illustrating a deteriorating sequence of events that led him to this godforsaken place. What’s perhaps most incomprehensible is that these kids were not sent by some court-appointed agreement resulting from a criminal case, but by their parents who are paying for this abominable treatment.
Midway through the film, we discover a year has passed, where Brad’s noticeable anger and temper have disappeared, as now he behaves like the docile and obedient “slave” they have turned him into, where he’s been given special privileges and told he has what it takes to make that next step out of there. Initially, Brad despised the trustees, inmates who cooperate with the counselors by being their eyes and ears in the barracks, literally spying on the other kids and reporting information back to the Colonel, but now he’s become one of them. While it appears he finally has a path out, he’s thrown a curveball when one of his former drug running buddies Gabriel (Chris Petrovski) arrives at the facility with that same badass attitude, where he’s torn between trying to help his old friend and not doing anything that would jeopardize his chances of getting out of there. The director supposedly spent ten years researching the type of camps depicted here, but it remains disconnected to any existing reality or outside world, where he lacks maturity or any cinematic understanding of how to find or express anything unique about the subject, never really getting under the surface, visually or otherwise, lacking observational skills, where he simply skims over the lives of almost everyone involved. This is simply bad filmmaking, with no directorial imprint, as this film could have been made by anybody, where the focus is less on providing a realistic exposé of the detestable conditions of the camp than the overcontrolling and disturbing expression of sadistic behavior, which receives all the exaggerated emphasis in this film, becoming so extreme and distorted that it loses any connection to reality. An equally brutal and sadistic film on the exact same theme is Marius Holst’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #9 King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy) (2010), a Norwegian film about a real life juvenile detention center on an Alcatraz like island of Bastøy in the North Sea, which was historically the site of monstrous acts of inhumanity to children, showing the same horrors, but getting much deeper into the mindset of both the prison administrator and these angry and vulnerable kids who are constantly being abused and taken advantage of, where the administration’s intent is to make use of child inmates for cheap, exploited labor. This film lacks the subtlety and poetry of the Norwegian film, a much darker psychological horror story that with little dialogue allows the boy’s point of view to develop into a sense of community, as they are all victims of the same inhumane living conditions. In COLDWATER, there’s no sense of camaraderie, as outside of Brad’s flashbacks, we never get to know any of the other characters. Accordingly, there’s little sympathy generated onscreen to the highlighted acts of abuse, or the kids rebellious response to it, where the film never builds that sense of moral outrage that it’s looking for and instead exists in a vacuum where nobody gives a damn.