My review of “Coldwater” World Premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival

On Wednesday, March 13, 2013 I attended the gala World Premiere of Coldwater at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The sold-out screening was held at the legendary Alamo Ritz. The film was a selection in the Narrative Spotlight section.

My career as a movie journalist began in earnest in 2006 when I traveled to the SXSW Film Festival to attend the World Premiere of The Bondage (nee Bondage). It was about a teen (Michael Angarano) who, after being busted for vandalism, feigns mental instability in lieu of being sent to a juvenile lockup, mistakenly assuming the psychiatric ward would be a better place to be. That movie made my very first festival Top 10 list.

In 2010, two similar pictures, both at the Philadelphia Film Festival, ended up on my Top 10 from that event. Those titles, the Romania/Sweden co-production If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle and the Canada/France/UK co-production Dog Pound, raised the bar a bit more for this oft-explored sub-genre. This past September, at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, another Canadian entry mined this fertile territory with Blackbird. Jason Buxton's juvie drama earned a spot on my fest Top 8 and went on to win numerous awards, including Best Canadian First Feature Film at TIFF and the Claude Jutra Award at the Genies (Canada's Oscars).

Coldwater continues in this proud cinematic tradition while boldly staking out new territory that's as fresh as it is devastatingly genuine. Although Coldwater isn't set in a prison, it might as well be as this "camp" for troubled kids can be just as brutal, if not more, than the dreaded penal institutions their parents are trying to avoid by sending them there. But what makes this real life horror film so gripping is that it's based on actual incidents which have been well documented across the country. Director/co-writer/producer Vincent Grashaw, with co-writer Mark Penney, has taken these true stories and crafted a powerful work that transcends the genre and leaves the viewer emotionally drained.

Brad Lunders (promising newcomer PJ Boudousqué) is a troubled teen hauled off at the behest of his parents to what they believe is essentially a "tough love" camp, a promising facility in a last gasp effort at rehabilitation before incarceration becomes the only option. He arrives at this anti-resort to the marching orders of retired Marine Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns), at first glance the typical confident commander and drill sergeant one expects. There's the requisite invasive strip search, awkward "don't look at me like you're my buddy" moments, and challenges to masculinity that are hallmarks of the genre. But as the tropes are ticked off and the narrative unfolds, something happens. You very quickly discover that you really haven't seen this before, and before realizing it you're on the edge of your seat, having no idea where the plot is headed after all. You've arrived at the intersection of art and commerce, and are about to take the road less traveled -- the one that truly defines what can be achieved in cinema when the filmmakers are calling the shots.

Coldwater has impressively high production values for a low budget independent film, yet eschews studio convention at every turn. Available light is used to tremendous effect here, giving it an undeniable indie look and feel. While most of the film is shot outdoors, single-point lighting in interior shots amplifies the claustrophobic environment in which these young men are placed. Right from the opening shot in Brad's dark bedroom, the interplay of light and shadow becomes central as our view mirrors the shadowy world of the characters. They never know what's lurking around the next corner, and neither do we. Cabins the young men are placed in for solitary confinement are lit only by the little bit of sunlight that achingly peers through the doors, rarely with interior lamps, a classic noir device that places the actors in silhouette and raises the tension as what's imagined in the mind of the viewer is often more intense than what might actually be seen onscreen.

This sense of foreboding and terror is matched by a hauntingly beautiful score from composers Chris Chatham and Mark Miserocchi. The soundtrack is sprinkled with an eclectic mix of styles, always a beat behind the action so as not to telegraph what's coming. Another example of Grashaw and company choosing not to take the easy way out. Geoff Flint's production design makes full use of the already-existing set without the need for much spit and polish. It's gritty and smelly and hammers home the notion that this place does anything but enrich young men's lives. It saps them.

Cinematographer Jayson Crothers relies on handheld only sparingly when necessary to bring the audience into action sequences. The camera primarily stands back, never obtrusive, as the viewer is but a helpless observer to this absurd environment where the rules are made up along the way and the loser may go home in a pine box. Widescreen shots of the lush landscape belie the ugliness being played out below, making the boys' plight that much more bittersweet. Eddie Mikasa's steady hand in the editing suite keeps the action at a pace just this side of Hollywood action, one more luxury in the hands of filmmakers not beholden to formula-spewing studio producers.

The large cast of camp counselors, young inmates, family, and friends bring the narrative to life with stunning authenticity. Watch for a vivid portrayal of Brad's partner-in-crime Gabriel from Chris Petrovski, along with a magnificent ensemble including Octavius J. Johnson, Mackenzie Sidwell Graff, Clayton LaDue, Tommy Nash, Scott MacArthur, Zach Selwyn, Raquel Gardner, Douglas Bennett, and Stephanie Simbari. More than anything, though, it's the brilliantly nuanced acting of young Boudousqué that is the heart and soul of Coldwater. In particular, a pair of adversarial relationships are key to the success of the story -- the obvious one between brash Brad and the Colonel, and a less in-your-face but emotionally more pivotal one between the new arrival and Josh Warrick (Nick Bateman), who's been there long enough to have figured out how to curry favor with the powers-that-be and put himself in a holier than thou position above the other "inmates." The only one not intimidated by Josh's posturing is Brad, who takes on the challenge of toppling him from his perch. Bateman is the dark horse in this drama who seemingly comes out of nowhere, with a poignant performance that is among the most heartwrenching I've seen recently, portraying a delicate balance of toughness and vulnerability that left me in tears.

One reason the cast was able to achieve such believability is that they lived together at the camp like family, bonding and establishing offscreen relationships that clearly affected what is seen onscreen. There was also a healthy amount of collaboration between the actors and filmmakers. Coldwater was clearly a labor of love for all involved -- the passion put into the project is palpable. Screenwriters Grashaw and Penney worked on the script through ten years of rewrites, yet still had the generosity of creative spirit to write on the fly -- sometimes creating entire scenes on the same day they were shot. That's rare for writers and directors even in the indie world. That they were not wedded to the words on the page is apparent in the conviction with which lines are delivered. It manifests in the fleshing out of characters like Colonel Reichert, who could have been a one-dimensional walking cliché but, with Burns, Penny, and Grashaw working in lockstep, becomes a multifaceted character whose true personality reveals itself in due time, unhurried and unforced.

A caution to potential viewers: Yes, Coldwater may look familiar at first. After all, this is a tried and true genre with a formula that ought to be acknowledged, to some extent. But don't let the initial conventions fool you. This movie is ultimately not about the package it's wrapped in. This is a moving character study that tells a real story, based on real people, who lived this and have had to stay silent. It's a slow burn, but if you stay with it the rewards abound. The layers begin to peel away like an onion and an enigmatic world unfolds. The judicious use of flashbacks, inserted at just the right moments, offers up shocking reveals that make the wait worth it. Soon, everything else falls away -- the arms crossed, been there done that attitude some viewers might bring to the table fades as one becomes lost in the film, this place, this time. In the end this is, indeed, an original story. By taking what might have been a linear narrative and breaking it up with flashbacks, Grashaw takes you to unexpected places. The multi-dimensional truths here reveal themselves as the tale unfolds and it is up to the viewer to have patience, faith in the filmmakers and cast, and willingness to set preconceived notions aside. If you do, Coldwater is destined to be a memorable experience.

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NOTE: See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A and video interviews with Grashaw, Boudousqué, and Burns. I gave Coldwater five stars and a place on my 2013 SXSW Film Festival Top 8 Narratives.

Coldwater was produced by Kris Dorrance and Dave Gare, along with Grashaw, who produced the 2011 Sundance hit and 2012 Independent Spirit double nominee Bellflower. Joe Bilotta and Mike Dorrance served as Executive Producers for Flying Pig Productions and Skipping Stone Entertainment in association with Gare Farrand Entertainment. On November 23, 2013, it was announced that Breaking Glass Pictures acquired the North American distribution rights and partnered with Bounty Entertainment to handle the UK and Australia. Rich Wolff of Breaking Glass (see my July 2011 video interview with Wolff) and Tony Romeo of Bounty negotiated the deal with Matthew Shreder and James Andrew Felts of Continental Media.

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Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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