SXSW 2013 Review: ‘Coldwater’ Is a Strongly Acted Cautionary Tale Weakened By a Leaky Script

review coldwater

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to strangers who pull you from your bed, handcuff you and put a cloth sack over your head. The last thing you hear as they toss you screaming into the back of a van is your mother saying “I love you.”

This is how we meet Brad Lunders (P.J. Boudousqué). He’s a teenager mired in a life of drug dealing and other criminal acts, and after a recent incident that resulted in a death his mother has chosen an extreme option intended to keep Brad out of jail. He’s been shipped off to a “residential treatment program for troubled youths,” but while that sounds like a professional and responsibly run place, it just may be anything but.

Coldwater is a beautifully acted and shot drama about troubled kids forced to grow up quickly by even more troubled adults. It’s an engaging eye-opener that moves from dramatic character piece to minor thriller, but while successful overall it’s deflated by the script’s structural problems and minimal emotion.

The Colorado compound of Coldwater is an outdoor boot camp for at-risk teen boys. It’s a privately operated business with no affiliation with the justice system and a morally questionable staff, but it has a strong reputation. An ex-military man named Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns) runs the place, and he makes it clear on Brad’s arrival that he sees his job as transforming maladjusted youths into responsible citizens by any means necessary.

Brad discovers what exactly those means are soon enough.

He settles into a routine through trial and error that sees Reichert’s men maintaining control through military style authority padded with humiliations and physical abuses. Solitary confinement, hose-downs and worse are common place, and eventually Brad learns the secret to survival. But even as he becomes a model resident the abuses continue around him, and a chain of events is set in motion that will break more than spirits.

Director/co-writer Vincent Grashaw‘s debut film isn’t based on a true story, but it very well could be. Boot camps like this are found throughout the country, but they exist in somewhat of a grey zone when it comes to legality and responsibility. While ultimately a criticism of an unchecked system, the film doesn’t present the place as a stereotypical hell on earth, at least not early on, and instead provides it with a real and legitimate purpose.

It’s a shame, then, that the script undercuts some of the film’s power with an unearned and structurally convoluted third act. While earlier flashbacks show viewers what initially brought Brad to his current situation, the final 25 minutes or so shuffle around in time for no good reason. Anyone paying attention for the first hour knows exactly what the final denouement will be, but Grashaw feels compelled to play with the audience to the point of confusion. There’s no doubt that the events are thrilling, but their power is diminished by the editing choices.

There’s also an emotional element lacking in some scenes that seem ripe for histrionics. An early death and a late reunion both play out with an oddly limited amount of poignancy and feeling.

The film’s major constant, though, is found in the quality of performances. Boudousqué’s Brad is the heart of the film, and he does a fine job in his acting debut. There’s a stoic charisma and strength that he exudes for much of the film, but in the few times where that exterior is forced to crack he shows a raw but intense fragility. (It takes a while to get past the uncanny resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s face and mannerisms, though.) Like Brad, Col. Reichert starts the film as a stock character, but Burns’ performance hints at the man beneath the gruff, cigar-chomping exterior even before the script shows its hand on the subject.

Coldwater is a dramatic and effective look at an all too common abuse of power that pulls no punches by its conclusion. Strong lead performances and attractive cinematography are occasionally overwhelmed by a spotty script, but the end product is suspenseful and compelling enough and marks Boudousqué, Burns and Grashaw as talents to watch.

The Upside: P.J. Boudousqué is quite good; affecting tale with drama and suspense

The Downside: Feels uneven in tone; ending is too jumbled and feels unwarranted

On the Side: Vincent Grashaw was a producer and camera operator on 2011’s Bellflower


Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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