With a debut performance best described as revelatory, P.J. Boudousque gives Vincent Grashaw's Coldwater the emotional core it needs as a troubled youth kidnapped in the middle of the night by a well-meaning but most likely misguided mother concerned about his downward spiral into criminal behavior and determined to reverse his cycle whatever the cost.
That cost is Coldwater, a residential treatment facility in the wilderness run by a retired marine named Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns), a no nonsense leader whose own downward spiral proves to be a compelling and disturbing mirror to that of Boudousque's Brad. If you've never heard of this type of residential boot camp, rest assured that they are very real and they have been regularly plagued by just the types of stories that unfold in Coldwater.
If you have some frame of reference for old school mental health treatment, then you can likely begin to grasp what exactly is meant by "residential treatment," which in this largely unregulated field usually means breaking the troubled youths through use of force, coercion, abuse and humiliation. While this sounds like the kind of film that could be filled with over-emoting histrionics and gratuitous violence, Grashaw for the most part keeps everything feeling authentic by focusing the film on the two key stories involving Brad and Colonel Reichert.
Fortunately for Grashaw, both actors are more than up to the task.
Colonel Reichert sees it as his sole mission to transform these young men's lives, though it's readily apparent early on that it's his own life that could use some transforming. As he experiences his own downward spiral, Coldwater runs amok as the "counselors" in the film, many of whom were formerly residents themselves, have merely displaced their previously unacceptable expressions of violence for this allegedly therapeutic brand of brutality.
While the counselors succeed in "breaking down" many of the young men in Coldwater, Brad manages to figure out what's going on and how to survive it. Figuring it out, of course, can't completely conceal the tragedies and traumas that surround him and watching it all unfold is emotionally riveting. To Grashaw's credit, Coldwater isn't a sugar-coated film that provides a paint-by-numbers approach that leads to a black-and-white morality play. Especially early in the film, Grashaw makes us fully understand why these types of facilities exist and makes us, perhaps, trust that they have a place in the world of justice.
Then, he makes us face the truth.
Watching that truth may hurt, disturb or even horrify you. It may not. It may be the kind of thing where you watch the film and think "Well, these kids deserve it."
If so, you're part of the problem.
Grashaw doesn't actually paint either Reichert or Brad as all good or all bad. That's lazy filmmaking and there's nothing lazy about Coldwater even when it does become just a touch convoluted towards film's end. There are glimpses, perhaps too brief for most moviegoers, of humanity contained within these characters but it's the kind of humanity that is borne out of living life in survival mode. If you've never been at that point in life, you're likely to regard Grashaw as one cold bastard.
Getting back for a moment to the performances, P.J. Boudousque manages to capture vulnerability and bravado and macho B.S. all in one performance that makes you wonder how this could possibly be his feature film debut. Even the most experienced actor would have been tempted to turn this into a one-note tour-de-force, but Boudousque manages to find layers upon layers inside this young man whose past may or may not dictate his future.
While he's called upon to be even more one-note, James C. Burns also knows that his task is to mirror that of Boudousque's Brad while never actually losing complete control. It's a challenging performance and Burns pulls it off beautifully.
Tech credits are top notch throughout, with D.P. Jayson Crothers lensing the film in a way that captures the beauty and the soullessness. The original music from Chris Chatham and Mark Miserocchi also serves as the perfect companion for the film's heightened drama without, for the most part, crossing that melodramatic line.
Coldwater just picked up the prize for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Actor at the Las Vegas Film Festival and is screening in competition this week at the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic