'Stealing Cars': LAFF Review

Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival
A well-intentioned film about juvenile justice that too often strains credibility.

Veteran actors join up-and-comers in this gritty drama about the travails of a teenage inmate.

The makers of Stealing Cars, which had its world premiere at Los Angeles Film Fest, set out to expose the cruelties and failures of the juvenile detention system in this country. The aim is admirable, the execution somewhat less so. The film makes a few too many missteps, but it does deserve credit for re-opening debate on an issue that merits serious scrutiny.

The main character, Billy Wyatt (Emory Cohen), is a brainy kid whose criminal behavior lands him in the Bernville Camp for Boys, where he has to contend with tough inmates and a less than sympathetic staff. His rebelliousness wins over some of the other detainees but makes him no friends among the staff. It’s clear that the system has failed boys like Billy, and the institution’s attempts to control his behavior backfire.

Director Bradley J. Kaplan and screenwriters Will Aldis and Steve Mackall have acknowledged the influence of earlier movies like Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It may not be fair to compare this low-budget effort to those classic films, but the truth is that the characterizations falter here.

One can appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to paint Billy as a different kind of teenage inmate. He quotes Camus and can recite long passages from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 by heart. While his literacy is refreshing, it’s a little hard to accept that he and a frail Jewish boy (Al Calderon) have to match wits with hardened, tattooed gang members.

Cohen does bring a lot of charisma to his portrayal, even if the conception of the character is dubious. Billy was a model student who started acting out as a result of a family tragedy that is revealed to us only gradually. In fact, the back stories of the characters are rather clumsily laid out. As a result of the fractured exposition, some of the actors have almost nothing to do. It’s nice to see William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman as Billy’s parents, but their parts are minuscule. On the other hand, John Leguizamo brings off an effective change of pace as a concerned but not always trustworthy counselor. Mike Epps gives one of the best performances as a local sheriff who offers shrewd advice to Billy. Heather Lind is appealing as the facility’s nurse, but her romantic flirtation with Billy is another of the script’s unfortunate contrivances.

Technical credits are polished and first-rate. (Mark Wahlberg, who co-starred with Cohen in the disappointing remake of The Gambler, is one of the executive producers.) Despite its inadequacies, the film raises valid questions about our juvenile justice system that will make viewers want to search for better answers.

Cast:  Emory Cohen, Heather Lind, Al Calderon, John Leguizamo, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Paul Sparks, Mike Epps
Director: Bradley J. Kaplan
Screenwriters:  Will Aldis, Steve Mackall
Producers:  Rachel Winter, Dan Keston
Executive producers:  Russell Geyser, Erika Hampson, Clayton Pecorin, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg
Director of photography:  Martin Ahlgren
Production designer:  Paul Avery
Costume designer:  Deirdra Elizabeth Govan
Editors:  Jarrett Fijal, Sabine Hoffmann, Adam Zuckerman
Music:  Phil Mossman

No rating, 101 minutes