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In chain-gang movies of the past, men wound up condemned to inhumane lock-ups and open-ended sentences because they had no loved ones to come looking for them. Today, according to Vincent Grashaw‘s ire-raising Coldwater, loved ones pay to give their children to despots, trying to fix their own parenting failures by sending troubled teens to privately run rehab centers that are unregulated by the government and often brutal. Grashaw’s convincing drama distills this underexposed world into the story of a single young man trying to survive a system designed to break him. Emotionally accessible but formally reserved enough not to feel like a cause movie, the picture has plenty of potential beyond the fest circuit if given the right kind of attention.
P.J. Boudousque plays Brad Lunders, who is awakened one morning by strangers — not policemen — dangling handcuffs above his cheek. As his mother watches on, he’s dragged out of his home and thrown into a van with other boys, bound for a remote camp surrounded by razor wire and ruled by thugs. This is Coldwater, where his parents hope he’ll be scared straight after a few years of small-time drug dealing and related trouble.
The camp’s director is gruff retired Marine Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns) whose talk is blustery but makes a hard-boiled sense: Give up whatever ideas you have about yourself, he tells his new charges, because they clearly aren’t working for you. His employees, however — former inmates who’ve supposedly bettered themselves — don’t know what the second word in “tough love” means: They’re sadistic instead of stern, doling out arbitrary and extreme punishments. Reichert is blind to their abuses; whether that’s by choice or ignorance, we don’t yet know.
As Grashaw fleshes out the dehumanizing environment here, he offers occasional glimpses of Lunders’s life before incarceration, with buddy Gabriel Nunez (Chris Petrovski) as a semi-innocent sidekick who wound up suffering for Brad’s poor judgment. As he enters his second year at Coldwater — now a line-toeing inmate who might graduate soon from trusty to guard — Nunez is sent to the camp, a newly-hardened kid whose attitude is bad enough that it might get him killed.
Grashaw has an affinity for the misdirected energies of these troubled teens and their despair in the face of their jailers’ capricious punishments. He and co-screenwriter Mark Penney introduce incidents that tie the story to prison films of the past, then gradually exploit the novelty of this setting, heightening the mood of isolation with glimpses of outside authorities who should be able to see what’s going on here and intervene, but fail to in sometimes wrenching ways. The script’s dramatic finale is shockingly violent but just within the bounds of the credible, an eruption of justified rage that speaks for the real-world youths (dozens since 1980, according to closing titles) who have died in juvenile rehab centers the government refuses to monitor.
Production Company: Flying Pig Productions
Cast: P.J. Boudousque, James C. Burns, Chris Petrovski, Octavius J. Johnson, Nicholas Bateman, Stephanie Simbari, Mackenzie Sidwell Graff, Clayton LaDue, Tommy Nash, Scott MacArthur, Michael Rousselet, Brandon Bilotta
Director: Vincent Grashaw
Screenwriters: Vincent Grashaw, Mark Penney
Producers: Kris Dorrance, Dave Gare, Vincent Grashaw
Executive producers: Joe Bilotta, Mike Dorrance
Director of photography: Jayson Crothers
Production designer: Geoff Flint
Music: Chris Chatham, Mark Miserocchi, Flying Pig Productions
Costume designer: Tricia Grashaw
Editor: Eddie Mikasa
Sales: Continental Media
No rating, 103 minutes
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