One of the unsuspecting gems that I saw at this year’s SXSW Festival was Vincent Grashaw’s directorial debut, Coldwater. The film follows Brad Lunders (PJ Boudousque), a troubled and short tempered teenager that deal drugs and hasn’t seemed to find a way to deal with the loss of his father. One night, Brad is abducted from his home and, with his mother’s consent, is taken to a juvenile rehab center, named Coldwater, out in the middle of nowhere. It is here where retired Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns) takes charge and aims to break the spirits of his “inmates” in the hopes of correcting their delinquent behavior. He is in the “business of transformation” and so using his reformed “inmates” as his subordinates, he is able to run Coldwater like a military boot camp. As time passes in this hellish compound, we learn more about what brought Brad to Coldwater, how his presence starts a chain of events that threatens the operations of the facility and what happens when he is forced into a position to confront the camp’s aggressive personnel and his own moral values.
Coldwater is a compelling and engrossing drama/thriller hybrid that takes us into a world that few people seem to really know exist (the closesest thing I can think of movie-wise is Holes but this is vastly different). Even with some political undertones, this character driven piece remains focused and on point for its entire duration, maintaining its serious tone while moving at an appropriate pace so as to prevent the viewer from ever being bored (which it succeeded in doing!). It’s lack of any comedic relief emphasizes the dread that all of the characters feel while living day by day in 100 degree weather, isolated from the rest of the world, praying they will eventually get the Colonel’s approval to finally go home.
There are a ton of films out there with young male leads that never seem to hit the mark. There’s always the issues of coming off too flat, not having the right presence, or simply overacting important scenes, but newcomer PJ Boudousque makes an impressive debut succeeding where so many of these young actors fail. His performance carries the film from start to finish without you ever getting annoyed by him (be sure to keep an eye on him). The reason for this is that his character Brad is a smart guy that’s made mistakes but, after the biggest tragedy of them all, his mother doesn’t give him a chance to rectify his blunder, instead sending him straight to Coldwater. When at Coldwater, rather than dismissing his orders or arguing with anyone, he takes orders for the most part and it’s refreshing to see a film with a lead who understands why he landed where he did from the start.
As for the “villain,” my favorite characteristic of the Colonel was his demeanor and Burns’ approach to his character. When Brad first lands inside Coldwater and the Colonel appears, I expected him to act like Drill Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket or like most prison Warden, dicks with power. In actuality, he doesn’t yell, he explain his mission and his goal in a simple and calming fashion, taking the exact opposite approach of we traditionally expect. As a result, it’s difficult to villainize the Colonel early on, he may be in charge of this dreadful place but he isn’t actually a bad guy (at least in the beginning).
What I found the most fascinating about the film were the similarities between Brad and the Colonel. They both have their own troubled pasts, issues they’ve had to confront internally and now understand the importance of changing for the better, the difference though are the tactics to achieve that goal. The aspect that struck me the most, and that I didn’t realize until after the fact, was that the two men basically swapped moral positions. Brad starts off as this violent drug dealing teen whose only real solace is his girlfriend but, when she’s gone, he realizes he has to change for the better and [indirectly] help the other troubled guys around him achieve that as well. The Colonel on the other hand starts off truly wanting to rehabilitate these kids, but when his military-style system that he’s lived by for so long begins to crumble around him, he is unable to think clearly and heads down a self-destructive path that eventually leads to complete chaos for him and those in the camp.
Grashaw’s approach to Coldwater is gentle enough to allow the film to explore the complexities of each character while gritty enough to get appropriately graphic when it needs to be. It’s this balance that every film lover can appreciate and cherish. For a film comprised mostly of first timers, Grashaw and Co. miraculously succeed where so many other indie filmmakers have failed, making a film that progressively gets better. It’s for this reason, and the many above, that makes Coldwater a film worth hunting down on the festival circuit until it gets the distribution that it rightly deserves.
Rating: An excellent start for all involved, Coldwater is a gripping feature that holds on from start to finish (7.7/10)
I’m not very familiar with the world of juvenile rehabilitation facilities but Grashaw’s film opens up a can of worms and makes me want to learn more about the subject. The subject is perfect for a documentary which could initiate change in a country that has no federal laws that regulate these facilities.