This is a movie with a disturbing story to tell, but it promises more for the future of its first-time director, writer and star, Monty Lapica, than it really delivers for a viewer. Set in the mid-1990s, it's the autobiographical tale of a bright boy who's screwing up in high school, and in life generally, until his mother consigns him to a sinister bad-kid boot camp that claims it can straighten him out. That such a place could actually exist (as it did at the time) is shocking; but the picture over-punches its message and ultimately grows tiresome.
Two years after the death of his father, 17-year-old Andrew Eriksen (Lapica) is in a classic downward spiral. Once a top student, he's now a disciplinary train wreck who spends most of his time cruising around his hometown of Las Vegas in a liquor-stoked pothead haze. His widowed mother (Diane Venora), a pill-gobbling addict herself, can no longer cope. So she signs over custody of her son to the ominous enforcers of the Brightway Adolescent Hospital, a lockdown rehab facility in St. George, Utah. A team of these men, led by head "counselor" Dan Jones (Michael Bowen), arrives at Andrew's home one night, rousts him out of bed and forcibly carts him away.
At Brightway, Andrew joins a group of other dysfunctional young inmates. They all have familiar drug and behavioral problems. (A 15-year-old girl, played by Kelly Kruger, tells Andrew she was raped as a child by her stepfather and had sex with 20 other men before she reached 13.) Lapica is wisely careful not to demonize the Brightway therapeutic staff, one of whom (warmly portrayed by Greg Germann) clearly feels he's doing what's best for his charges. But the rehab agenda includes endless petty humiliations (closely observed showers, for instance) and sudden punishments (being forced to stand for hours in an empty room — no leaning against walls allowed), and Andrew soon rebels. He comes up with a clever escape plan, manages to bust out and returns home to Las Vegas. The movie might well have ended here, even if the real-life story didn't. But Lapica plays it all out — to the point where we begin to wonder when we'll be getting sprung.
Back home again, Andrew reverts to his old pursuits, and soon his mother summons the Brightway people to come retrieve him. Andrew is furious, because he knows what'll happen next: Brightway cases that prove especially difficult are shipped out of the country to an affiliated detention center in Western Samoa, far from the distractions of American youth culture and the prying eyes of legal authorities. Andrew is actually en route to this fate when he escapes again, makes his way back to Vegas, encounters a saintly homeless man who tells him he should be nicer to his mother, and then — we're definitely checking our watches at this point — sinks into a very long, tortured, tear-sodden soliloquy addressed to his departed dad.
The actors playing the teenagers are all a little too old for their roles, but they give generally solid performances, especially Kelly Kruger, who persuasively combines sullenness and vulnerability, and Kristina Anapau as a perky girl who discerns the good guy buried within Andrew's erratic behavior. And Lapica himself — whose chiseled blond good looks hark back to an earlier era of Hollywood handsomeness — holds our attention even with a limited repertoire of emotional modes. But as the excruciating soliloquy scene demonstrates, one of the riskiest things a director can do is to star in his own movie. The temptation to leave scenes in that should definitely be yanked out, just because you mistakenly believe you're giving a revelatory performance, can be overpowering.
Lapica definitely has a filmmaking knack, though, and he'll probably be back. (Soon, perhaps — this movie was made four years ago.) In the meantime, his first film has done the service of shining a light on an alarming phenomenon — a tough-love juvenile-detention industry that has managed to thrive mainly because of the ambiguities of custodial law. (Do parents have the right to do almost anything in what they feel is their children's best interest?) At least Brightway is no longer a part of this deplorable business. After five years in operation, the facility was effectively shut down by Utah authorities in 1998, with one prosecutor describing it as "a marshalling point for the collection of troubled minors" and a "sham hospital." A large number of other teen therapeutic centers, some similar in varying ways, remain open to this day.
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