Teens and their parents have a boatload of issues to deal with these days, and it seems like director Leif Rokesh wants to deal with all of them in “Reach.” Every character represents a superficial snapshot of modern strife in one form or another. Though its heart is in the right place when it comes to many of the boldly-portrayed sentiments, the indie melodrama plays like a hokey, weak after-school special rather than a powerful and alarming wake-up call.
Steven Turano (Garrett Clayton) is going through a rough patch on his first day as a high school senior. This year should be a cake walk, but for the perpetually withdrawn, suicidal teen, life is a torturous prison. His only potential escape route is the unopened bottle of prescription pills tucked away in his backpack. Steven is bullied sun up ’til sundown by men that include his disciplinarian detective father Steve Turano (Bojesse Christopher), snarky queer drama geek Richard (Joey Bragg), and former-best-friend-turned-foe Nick Perkins (Jordan Doww).
Everyone here is involved in sordid scenarios: Steven visits pro-suicide internet chat rooms and is still grief-stricken over his mom’s death almost a decade ago. Detective Turano takes out his daily frustrations on his son. Nick is a closeted homosexual hiding his secret from his alcoholic, homophobic, and abusive father Jack (Kevin Sizemore). Jack incidentally used to be Steve’s partner on the force until they had a mysterious falling out.
Rays of sunshine begin to poke through the clouds hovering over Steven’s dark days when Clarence West (Johnny James Fiore, who co-wrote this feature) transfers into the school. The new student is everything Steven isn’t: gregarious, eccentric, charismatic, and fearless. After Clarence defends Steven in a fight against Nick (one that goes viral), the two form a bond, along with bland third wheel Daniel (Steven Thomas Capp). The burgeoning relationships pull Steven out of his depression. On top of that, Clarence earns best-friend status through his kind disposition and quirky ability to reference movies such as “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” “The Karate Kid,” “Say Anything,” and “Dumb and Dumber.” However, as Steven learns, even a positive person like Clarence is cloaking his own inner demons, addictions, and anxieties.
The biggest failing of “Reach” also happens to be one of the more admirable things attempted by a film of its ilk: to show bullying from the perspective of both the perpetrator and the victim. On a basic level, it succeeds at conjuring audience empathy for both parties. That said, demonstrating the old “hurt people hurt people” adage through bully Nick and his father Jack is a total letdown. The Perkins’ problems get lost in the narrative, overshadowed by the triumphs and travails of Clarence and Steven’s sweet friendship. Nick’s provocation of Steven bookends the story, and shows their confrontations only in extreme terms. Most surprisingly, Nick’s arc is left largely unresolved.
While unexplained elements related to Jack’s situation prove confusing — there are timeline problems involving a three-week suspension for who-knows-what at his job, for example — the script wastes a fair amount of screen time on elements that have little bearing on the story. A thread featuring Clarence’s emotionally tormented grandparents Charles (Corbin Bernsen) and Doris (Concetta Tomei) doesn’t go anywhere, and scenes involving Nick’s girlfriend/beard Kimberly (Raffaela Capp) aren’t necessary.
At least the picture doesn’t suffer from poor quality lead performances. Despite a desperate need for snappier pacing to properly showcase their work, both Clayton and Fiore convey the inner workings of their characters’ complex conundrums. Clayton brings a vulnerability and subtle physicality to the role, his posture transforming from hunched to straight over the course of the story. Fiore imbues his character with a likable zest — a feat since Clarence’s quirky traits would be grating in anyone else’s hands.
If only the score and soundtrack didn’t detract from their labors: Rio Mangini’s compositions counteract the emotional intimacy in certain scenarios, especially during the denouement between Steven and his father. The piece used in this crucial moment feels disquieting and disconnected from the characters’ hope-filled resolution. Plus, the way Rokesh utilizes the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, not just once, but twice, sounds wildly out of place.
It’s commendable that the film portrays teen life authentically, showing them smoking pot and playing beer pong, and tackles the darker subjects that can creep into their lives. Unfortunately, its message is delivered in a rote, lifeless, and preachy manner.