Brad Lunders (P.J. Boudousqué) is awakened in the middle of the night by strapping figures wearing shirts reading “STAFF” and is unceremoniously tossed in the back of a van with other teenage boys, all handcuffed and shivering in their pajamas. They are headed to a private juvenile “rehabilitation” facility out in the country, a place where their parents have paid former military men and their lackeys a hefty sum of money to scare their misbehaving teens straight, with physical and mental torture.
This is the milieu of “Coldwater,” the feature directorial debut of Vincent Grashaw, a producer and cinematographer (via festival favorite “Bellflower“). “Coldwater” teems with a boiling resentment toward the abuse of power. Eventually, that resentment will pour out in bloody chaos, but rigid authoritarian structures prove difficult to bring down.
The film is most successful when it’s ruminating on the origins and cycles of violence as perpetuated by men, highlighting how it exists as a mode of communication. Our hero, Brad, is no innocent. His drug dealing and fighting (leading to an accidental death) lands him here, and he never hesitates to throw punches when it serves his needs. Violence is how he expresses his desires most clearly.
That violence is his only language is ultimately the downfall of “Coldwater,” as our hero is woefully underwritten. Boudousqué is an appealing onscreen presence —he’s someone you want to look at— but his stoic performance and lack of clearly articulated motives cause him to remain a mystery to the audience. He’s initially resistant to and then compliant with the draconian authority at the camp, but we have no idea what he wants. It seems he’s concealing his subversiveness or just trying to survive, but his contradictory actions and stone face amount to a dead end. And while we are supposed to sympathize with his plight, his lack of remorse or acknowledgement of consequences makes him seem like a bad seed who probably could use a session in juvie (or something like it). Unfortunately, it’s just very hard to connect with Brad, unlike his buddies Gabriel (Chris Petrovski) and Jonas (Octavius J. Johnson) who bleed their emotions on screen.
The film treats the pain and destruction inflicted on these young bodies as an indictment of this system, but the violence doesn’t feel earned by the story, and the “Lord of the Flies” vengeance-fueled hell that it descends into seems to come from out of nowhere. It often seems that “Coldwater” can’t quite decide what kind of film it wants to be: At times it treads into near gonzo horror territory (and this would be a great setting for that), but then veers back into a “message”- oriented social justice tone, never quite settling in one or the other. Both feel inauthentic as a result.
The film’s aesthetic in terms of cinematography is coherent and visually pleasing, and the performances are compelling. There’s a lot of complicated narrative play in the form of flashbacks, twists, and non-linear storytelling, which is well-executed, but doesn’t always seem necessary, as it doesn’t change the way we see the characters or the events. Boudousqué demonstrates potential as a leading man and performer, but the underwritten role doesn’t give him enough to work with, and the emotional connection to the audience is lacking. For a first time feature outing, “Coldwater” is a fine effort from Grashaw, and the setting feels fresh and new. It’s an original take on a coming of age, young masculinity tale, but ultimately, it doesn’t quite live up to all of its potential. [B-]