Sidewalk review: “Coldwater” (****)

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P.J. Boudousqué stars in “Coldwater”

Since its SXSW premiere, Vincent Grashaw’s “Coldwater” has embarked on a successful festival run, leading up to where I caught it in Birmingham at the Sidewalk Film Festival. Following a wayward teen’s abduction and forced placement into a privately-run juvenile behavior reform camp, “Coldwater” is a brutal, visceral take at the real and often hushed world of privatized rehabilitation. With facilities operating without local or federal regulation, these programs have free range to ‘reform’ their clients (or, rather, inmates). Grashaw’s lens is not afraid to show what most filmmaker’s cameras would turn away from.

In addition to successfully creating a a climate thick with acrimony, Grashaw also succeeds at operating “Coldwater” in reality. There are actually real camps where legal battles are in progress but drawn out beyond belief, cops have their hands tied and news agencies can only expose the truth after extreme tragedy occurs. Shedding light on the dangers of these programs through a fictionalized account allows the screenplay (written by Grashaw with Mark Penney) to steer clear of pontification. Some questions do arise, however. Are all of these emotions on display correct? Had the ‘inmates’ been threatened with this before their abduction? It seems as though the distress would weigh harder on some than others. I have no answers, though—and who could, unless you’ve found yourself in such a rare situation.

A good deal of character intricacy is demonstrated throughout the course of the film, thanks in equal part to steady screenplay development and strong performances. P.J. Boudousqué—in his first ever performance—ticks all the boxes necessary to show the progression of our lead character, Brad Lunders. Boudousqué, as I’m sure other reviewers have noted, is a type of welterweight Ryan Gosling—which will no doubt serve him well after this promising kickstart to his career. Dimension for James C. Burns’ retired Army Colonel and Coldwater leader Frank Reichert is established pretty quickly, leading a pack of solid supporting performances from Chris Petrovski, Octavius J. Johnson and Nicholas Bateman.

“Coldwater” marks a passionate and wolfish directorial debut for Grashaw. From the great coloring and lighting down to Chris Chatham and Mark Miserocchi’s pulsating score, the film showcases some of the finest technical aspects of the American indie festival circuit this year. There are some hits and misses in terms of directorial choices—such as the use of a rapturous Italian song, “Tutti Dispiace” performed by Ashton Martin, at the start of year two (hit) or an oddly timed voiceover piece a third of the way in that would have been very well served as more of a prologue (miss)—but overall, Grashaw excels in creating the film he set out to make.

“Coldwater” is a polished production exacting little restraint on its gritty subject matter.

4 out of 5 stars.
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