There’s a certain kind of fantasy, appealing to teenagers, that involves imagining yourself in a situation harsh enough to justify the alienation and rage flooding your soul. The attraction is the perverse satisfaction of enduring nightmarish scenarios, no matter how high the deck is stacked against you. Coldwater has the feel of one of those fantasies, from its melodramatic mixture of grandiosity and powerlessness to its view of the world as a torture-chamber crucible for an angry young man who has to grow up too fast. So it comes as no surprise that writer-director Vincent Grashaw wrote the film’s first draft soon after graduating high school.
The story opens with Brad (P.J. Boudousqué, who looks and acts distractingly like Ryan Gosling) being dragged out of bed and into the back of a van by a bunch of thugs from Coldwater, the private juvenile “rehabilitation” facility his frazzled mother has enlisted to straighten out the rebellious, drug-dealing teen. For a while, the film alternates between hellish scenes from this mini-Gitmo, where people are constantly being tortured and killed or killing themselves, and flashbacks to Brad’s life before he was brought there. Most involve Brad’s tragedy-bound girlfriend, Erin, or his best friend, Gabe (Chris Petrovski), another self-styled tough guy (“You gotta go talk to Erin, fool. She be looking for you all pissed and shit,” Gabe tells Brad in one flashback).
Behind the impassive demeanor of a kid determined not to lose his cool, Brad takes his licks, learns how to (mostly) avoid trouble, and befriends Jonas (Octavius J. Johson), whose ankle the brutal staff break and then grievously mistreat, driving Jonah so hard that he winds up losing his leg. Then Gabe shows up, too angry to learn to play by the rules. Brad tries to protect his old friend, but when that doesn’t work he helps him escape, setting in motion a disastrous (and sometimes confusing) chain of events.
The adults are all ciphers or caricatures, useless or worse. Brad’s mother is bewilderingly absent for the two years he spends in Coldwater, though when she finally shows up she clings to him lovingly, apologizing abjectly for having sent him to such a place. The doctor who treats all the boys’ wounds, a former Coldwater boy himself, was so traumatized by his experience there that he appears to be struck entirely dumb. Even the journalists who hound Brad as he gets into a cop car after being falsely accused of a crime are unconvincing, trotting clumsily after him with mikes held out as they talk over one another, a child’s notion of a pack of reporters.
And that’s a shame, because abuse is a very real problem at private juvenile rehabilitation facilities. Even deaths are far too frequent, if not nearly as frequent as they are in the film (there are “dozens of teenage deaths on record” since 1980 in state run and private U.S. facilities, a title crawl at the end informs us). That means there are a lot of real-life counterparts to Brad, Gabe and Jonah, and they deserve a less naïve, and hence less distancing, film than this one.