“Coldwater” is the story of what happens to a baby-faced hunk after his mom sends him to a juvenile rehabilitation facility. Never mind that he sells drugs, starts fights at parties and is directly responsible for the death of an innocent friend. As played by heartthrob-in-the-making P.J. Boudousque, the character is evidently just too cute to deserve rehabilitation. A passion project more than a decade in the making for director Vincent Grashaw, this uneven arthouse- and VOD-bound indie — released unrated, but suitable for teens — lies somewhere between indignant expose and unusually tasteful exploitation pic, with shower scenes and sweaty young delinquents aplenty.
Though it never strays far from the prison-abuse-movie playbook, “Coldwater” doesn’t exactly look or feel like other examples of the genre, hewing closer to the aesthetic found in Bruce Weber’s Abercrombie & Fitch photography. Bathed in a rich, golden glow, the pic has an almost dreamlike feel to it. Such an environment may inspire erotic fantasies for some, but for Brad Lunders (Boudousque), it’s a nightmare that begins when he’s awakened in the middle of the night by two tough guys with handcuffs who throw him in the back of a van and drive him out to the desert, where he’s stripped down and humiliated by Col. Frank Reichert (former stuntman and all-around tough guy James C. Burns).
Boudousque bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Ryan Gosling — buff, glassy-eyed, his blank expressions holding back untold inner turmoil — which makes it easy to side with Brad, even as this jumpily cut back-and-forth narrative gradually reveals the circumstances that landed this troubled teen in boot camp. Would we be so forgiving if he didn’t look like a former Mouseketeer? As the colonel explains, these guys aren’t in prison, but have been sent to the privately run Coldwater Camp by their families for an attitude adjustment, sometimes for infractions as minor as smoking pot or cutting class.
Camps like Coldwater do exist, and Grashaw (a producer and cameraman on “Bellflower”) informs us at the end that dozens of teens have died at such institutions since 1980, though the film isn’t exactly convincing in its depiction of the camp culture. Apart from the colonel and a heroin-junkie doctor (Douglas Bennett), the rest of the staff are graduates of the program, suggesting a sort of self-perpetuating Stanford Prison Experiment, where non-professionals get the chance to exert sadistic dominance over those in their charge.
Surrounded by razor-wire fences and located 25 miles from the nearest town, the remote camp offers little chance of escape, which means the inmates have no choice but to comply, or endure capricious beatings and solitary confinement. Brad wises up fast after his first friend, a scrawny kid named Jonas (Octavius J. Johnson), is carted away in an ambulance.
Grashaw might have had “Full Metal Jacket” in mind when splitting the film in half, focusing first on Brad’s tumultuous adjustment before skipping ahead one year to show how things spin wildly out of control with the arrival of his old homie, Gabriel Nunez (Chris Petrovski). During the early stretch, it all seems a bit small-time — both the production and the boot camp itself — which lulls the audience into a false sense of comfort, since “Coldwater” goes kinda berserk in the end, piling on an implausible bloodbath, unnecessary plot twists and an ill-advised flashback that threatens to undermine whatever moral high ground the characters gained along the way.
Through it all, the camera remains relatively calm (none of that queasy handheld jostling that passes for “documentary style” these days), while the ethereal electronic score supplies much of the tension. Shooting on a Red Epic, d.p. Jayson Crothers helps to set the relatively generic film apart, even if the super-crisp result makes this critique of juvenile detention centers look more like a commercial for one. Addressing a generation that grew up on Louis Sachar’s “Holes,” it’s as though Grashaw wanted to direct the gritty, realistic version of that kid-friendly correctional-camp fable — minus the grit, or the realism.