In Coldwater, indie visual sensitivity and genre intuition unexpectedly meet. The effect is, surprisingly, a rather classic, but skillfully – and tastefully, despite the graphic content – executed drama that tracks the painful blossoming of maturity during a crisis of authority and morality.
The story seems familiar at first glance: a young rebel with drug problems is sent to a rehabilitation facility by his mom, who can’t deal with the problematic teen on her own. But it soon turns out the camp, promising to teach teens some discipline and make them proper again, is not your ordinary reformatory. Situated somewhere in the dusty no-man’s-land, this hell on Earth is no different from a brutally ruled military work camp. Abandoned by their parents, kids are completely dependent on their sadistic supervisors, part ex-military part-former “reformed” delinquents themselves. The protagonist, Brad Lunders, has to learn how to navigate this rotten system and prioritize his goals with a need of justice and survival, obedience versus loyalty, and with his integrity threatened by moral compromise.
The lack of time limitations within the camp structure seems interesting from a psychological standpoint. There’s no strictly imposed training plan or course the inmates are following. Every day consists of repetitive, mostly futile activities that serve merely as a reformatory training and as a way to enslave and crush the disobedient youngsters. Such an absence of definition and openness is fascinating from the audience’s point of view, as it introduces the element of surprise into the picture, but also quite improbable from a standpoint of reality. Leaving state supervision or regulations aside, it’s hard to believe any parent could be indifferent enough to send even the most rebellious child to I-don’t-know-where for I-don’t know-how-long, with no calls allowed… But maybe not: the Deanna Laneys and Megan Hunstmans of this world might have found such an option less tiring and more convenient than the horrific acts they chose to do.
What adds a surprise dimension to Coldwater is a certain casting duality: P.J. Boudousque as Brad looks like young Ryan Gosling’s identical twin, at the same time exuding an uncanny, but not purely physical, resemblance to Brad Renfro in The Client. On the other hand, there’s something unbelievably Richard Dean Anderson-esque and MacGyver-ish about James C. Burns as Colonel Frank Reichert. Blame the guns and military outfits, but this weird, doppelgangerish feeling remains present throughout the whole picture. The actors never seem to take risks, moving with the director’s expected guidelines, but deliver rather solid performances. Burns’ colonel is a little too black-and-white with his violent behavior being justified by a past trauma, rejection, and hurt pride, but this one-dimensionality is somehow compensated by a nuanced construction of Boudousque’s character. This pretty boy with vague facial expressions is neither innocent, nor guilty. Fighting a good fight cannot wash away his sins, and appealing physique cannot cover his dark instincts. One wrong step and he might easily become Reichert one day.
Coldwater is impressively executed, with Jayson Crothers’ slick and climatic camerawork adding a much desired mystery to the grit, sweat, and blood. Chris Chatham and Mark Miserocchi’s unnerving, distressing score serves as a metronome, equipping the story with an irregular pulse, finding a powerful culmination especially in the finale, which is distantly reminiscent of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” The overall effect is too predictable and never truly breaks the good-mediocrity ceiling, leaving the viewer slightly hungry for more inventiveness. However, importantly, the promising writer/director Vincent Grashaw (along with co-writer Mark Penney) is not only telling the story; he also points out to a much larger problem contemporary America’s evidently struggling with: how any systemized, closed organization on a mission to tutor – an army, or, in this case, a juvenile delinquency camp – can actually dehumanize instead of civilize.