The blowback from America’s war on terror hits a group of young people, full of unexamined racism and with a lot of free time on their hands, in the highly disturbing if overwritten “Anytown.” Repping a major improvement for director/co-writer Dave Rodriguez on his previous project, 2006’s “Push,” the new drama tightens the screws and generates some wrenching tension, some of it apparently influenced by the more grueling films of Michael Haneke. If the message is all too obvious, the aftereffect is enough to make this a strong indie title for theatrical and vid sales at home and abroad.
The film’s prelude coolly and precisely observes two teens watching an Al Qaeda-style execution video on a home computer, leading to a meeting between small-town high school Principal Wheeler (Paul Ben-Victor) and senior student Brandon (Matt O’Leary). Although Brandon is ready to sign up for the Marines after graduation (with hopes of following his older brother to Iraq), Wheeler gives him a one-day suspension for electronically distributing the execution video.
Bad move, it turns out. With loads of time to kill, Brandon invites his pals Mike (Marshall Allman), Bo (Sam Murphy) and Kyle (Ross Britz) over to celebrate his upcoming departure. The first of a series of extended group scenes, played with considerable naturalism and sounding at least partly improvised, is like a study in how peer pressure works: Mike, the only one in the group who’s college-bound, gradually gives in to the temptation to drink, smoke and fool around.
The template is thus set for what develops into a contemporary political horror movie. Rodriguez and co-writer Zak Meyers don’t immediately announce their dramatic intentions: When the guys pick up Kyle’s g.f. Charlotte (Meghan Stansfield) and her pal Michelle (Brooke Johnson) to have some fun at an empty house, the pic is suffused with the feeling of what it’s like to be young in a small town, with nothing to do but screw around, talk big and raise some hell.
When the real hell starts happening, “Anytown” reveals both its strengths and its weaknesses. Brandon finds a target for his anti-Arab, anti-Muslim biases, and Mike, a good student and the only one of the group who’s bound for college, is frozen in the headlights of Brandon’s mounting violence and angry threats. While these tensions grip like a vise, the bigoted, redneck-style speeches uttered by Brandon and echoed by Kyle and Bo become too obvious for the film to dramatically sustain.
This is particularly problematic because Rodriguez has taken pains to create as generally realistic a setting as possible, especially in his choice in the film’s latter half to stage whole scenes in unedited master shots, often at a remove from the characters. This, plus the use of vid cameras, will remind watchful viewers of Haneke’s cinema.
The young cast is remarkable, their general anonymity and talent combining to ramp up the film’s terrors. Allman’s portrait of a weakening soul incapable of facing up to friends gone bad is especially impressive.
Epilogue clip featuring Natasha Henstridge as a TV reporter nearly negates everything that precedes it, and auds are advised to dash for the exits, or click the stop button, when the real story fades out. Production departments, along with location lensing in Louisiana by John Barr, are first-rate on a limited budget.