Review - ‘The Archer’ Delivers Thrills, Social Commentary, and a Dash of Exploitation

111vyRc_e9K8njHHL_kDNqQ

SXSW 2017

‘The Archer’ Delivers Thrills, Social Commentary, and a Dash of Exploitation

Imagine a fictional and highly entertaining remake of the documentary ‘Kids for Cash.’

The Hunger Games franchise may be over, but those of us who enjoy watching young women send pointy missiles of death towards evil-doers aren’t out of luck just yet. Ignore the unimaginative title – The Archer is a thrilling and highly compelling tale of young woman fighting back against a justice system gone rogue, and it’s inspired by a real-world travesty.

Lauren (Bailey Noble) is an A-student and an expert marksman on her high-school archery team, but she watches as her life crumbles following an altercation and the subsequent criminal proceeding. She’s charged with assault, and while it was in defense of her best friend the judge throws the proverbial book at her sentencing her to a remote detention facility for wayward youths for an “indeterminate” sentence.

She finds a fan in the camp’s director/warden, Bob (Bill Sage), who himself won an archery medal in the Olympics several years prior, but she quickly discovers his management style leaves a lot to be desired. The female prisoners – all teenagers – are treated harshly by the guards – all male – and face increases in their sentences for even minor infractions. One abuse too many, combined with the realization that she could be there for years, sends Lauren and her newfound, trouble-making friend Rebecca (Jeanine Mason) running through the hills in an effort to escape.

The Archer is a tight and entertaining little thriller that takes a somewhat familiar plot – wrongfully convicted person on the run – and twists it just enough to make it feel both fresh and relevant. Director Valerie Weiss and writer Casey Schroen don’t waste a single frame and yet still take the time to let viewers get to know Lauren. Her skills with a bow and at self-defense are made clear early on, and her interest in girls is equally evident – even if it’s more clear to us than it is to the other characters. She’s an immediately engaging character brought to life with a vitality-filled performance, and we’re in her corner from the very beginning.

The back half of the film consists of the two girls on the run with Bob and his lackeys in pursuit, and Weiss crafts some suspenseful sequences against the remote Californian landscape. It’s an attractively-shot film with strong, convincing performances throughout, but while it gets everything right onscreen it also serves to remind of what’s so damn wrong off-screen.

This for-profit “camp” is loosely based on real ones across the country and a specific case out of Luzerne, PA – revealed in the devastating documentary Kids for Cash – and the truth behind its existence is a harrowing reality. Teens (and younger) charged with minor offenses are moved through a manipulated system to fill beds and the pockets of both judges and camp directors, and far too often innocence is snuffed out along the way.

For all its smarts, thrills, and societal importance the film still manages to tease a slight edge of exploitation. It’s far from a women in prison flick, but we do get a scene of Lauren in the shower while a guard pleasures himself behind a peephole, and there are not one but two attempts by Lauren to make out with girls – both of which are interrupted as if to say “this is not that movie but we recognize our influences.” It would be a different movie if any of these scenes went further, but their inclusion here adds a mildly salacious edge that only increases the film’s effectiveness as a thriller.

The Archer is a terrifically engaging action/thriller that holds your attention taut as a bow string while delivering suspense, beauty, and thought-provoking excitement to the very end.

"Rob is great. He likes movies. He writes about them. And he's a good person."