American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
What happens when a society built on violent, dictatorial power faces collapse? How do we deal with violent youths whom we cannot control? How much freedom should we give those who we allow to shape our children from boys to men? Vincent Grashaw’s SXSW drama “Coldwater” tries to deal with these challenging questions in the form of a narrative about a juvenile boot camp, the kind of place that thinks violence and Army training techniques are the way to deal with teens whose parents no longer have the answers. It’s a promising topic for a drama, and Grashaw’s talented leading man carries it until the filmmaker steals it from him and destroys everything built up in the first hour. The final act of “Coldwater” is horrendously misguided, the kind of insincere melodrama that erases the memory of what came before. It’s a particular shame because there’s an hour of decent filmmaking here.
The title refers to a remote location at which parents essentially give up the protective rights to their children and allow alpha males to form them into “better citizens.” These places exist, and, as the end credits inform us, do so with little governmental oversight, leading to injuries and even death. When your son has reached a point where bad behavior becomes violent and illegal, what do you do to keep him out of jail? It’s a serious question facing hundreds of families.
Grashaw clearly believes that places like Coldwater are not the answer. From the minute that Brad (P.J. Boudousqué) gets there, Coldwater is painted as a testosterone-heavy corner of Hell. The teens are forced to run miles every day, given little water along the way, and that’s the highlight for many of them. Sprayed with fire hoses, strung up by their wrists and left overnight, etc.—Colonel Frank (James C. Burns) seems to honestly believe that his reform structure will turn boys to men but it’s a harrowing process to do so. And, perhaps worst of all, Frank has a system in which the “good kids” become Trustys and eventually employees of Coldwater, which naturally encourages in-fighting among the barracks.
When a friend of Brad’s named Jonas (the naturally talented Octavius J. Johnson) gets hit by a counselor-driven ATV on a run, Coldwater starts to fall apart. The incident brings in some authority figures and Colonel Frank begins to sense that his days may be numbered. What happens when a mad man starts to lose his control? You can imagine that it gets worse before it gets better. And when one of Brad’s old buddies (Chris Petrovski) comes to Coldwater, it’s the match hitting a lake of gasoline.
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