Bravetown is a bizarre mix of red state-courting fantasia and despairing war-protest film. Its principal setting is the type of small Midwestern town that’s typically defined by the movies as a series of unending pillow shots—of the lake with the abandoned boat, the gravel road dotted with trees that are forever illuminated by magic-hour sunsets, and the idyllic country cabin where Dad drinks coffee and pours over the paper. These images are punctuated pointedly with American flags—even, in one instance, a Confederate one—and with shots of children playing war in their backyards. In one scene, a military recruiting post is lingered upon with a sense of ominousness that scans as potentially unintentional.
Considering the prologue, which features a troubled teen, Josh (Lucas Till), who DJs in New York to blossoming attention and its attendant casual sex, drug use, and eventual downfall, it’s reasonable to assume that this small town will be held up as a paragon of the good American values (namely, unquestioned service to thy master, the military-industrial complex) that Josh must embrace to rediscover his spiritual center. In fact, the town is even called Paragon. In the first act, one dreads an approaching pro-war narrative in which Josh enlists to become a real man—a despicable theme, particularly in our current age of endless warfare. What Josh, and the viewer, discovers instead is a community that’s understood to be profoundly damaged by its legacy of feeding its citizens to the meat grinder. All the men have served in combat, and they’re visibly wrecked by the fallout. Even worse are the families of the dead soldiers, who’re collectively represented by one mother (Laura Dern) who’s delusional in her grief. Josh’s coming of age refreshingly doesn’t pivot on his embrace of Americana, but on his emerging recognition that he doesn’t possess a patent on social estrangement.
Yet, director Daniel Duran and screenwriter Oscar Orlando Torres are chaste about the source of the town’s collected anger, as they clearly don’t want to offend anyone. The military is never actually mentioned as a governmental entity, and wars are never explicitly discussed, with the vague exceptions of someone mentioning “the Gulf,” and another alluding to an incident that’s clearly intended to resemble the Benghazi bombing. The American government is personalized in the form of a likeably guilt-ridden high school guidance counselor (Josh Duhamel), and let off the hook when said counselor reaches his formulaic third-act catharsis. This skittishness has the effect of ironically intensifying the military’s implicative presence in the film. Imagine watching a movie about a survivor of a hit-and-run incident who never mentions the unprosecuted driver and you have an idea of Bravetown’s eerily willy-nilly tone.
This heavy thematic detritus hangs along the margins of a romance in which Josh arrives at a new school and falls in love with a beautiful dancer, Mary (Kherington Payne), teaching her to modernize her unbelievably lame routines with his theoretically hip mixes. This story, reminiscent of the considerably more sophisticated Step Up series, eventually intersects with the damaged veteran milieu in a fashion that’s so bonkers it must be seen to be believed. Josh and Mary, in an effort to exorcise Paragon of its war-channeled demons, conceive of a dance number in which the symbolic crucifixion of Platoon’s climax is enacted by several carefully racially varied teen dancers over a club beat. The death of Willem Dafoe’s character in the Olive Stone film is repurposed as an ode to resurrection and transcendence, embodying Bravetown’s all-purpose mixed messaging in a nutshell. The filmmakers attempt to acknowledge the pain of warfare, within the framework of a redemptive story that lends it an unforgivably patronizing sense of closure.