‘Coldwater’ is a shallow dip into the juvey reform school boot camp controversy

The independent movie “Coldwater” comes out at a good time. Just when the topic of violence and abuse at reform schools is back in the news. The first set of remains found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys has been identified. “Coldwater” is about a contemporary juvenile reform boot camp and there are extreme behavior modification techniques such as physical intimidation, starvation and torture.

If you’ve been following cover of the Dozier school, then you know that it was a place for white and black boys during a time in the South when discrimination was a way of life. Located in Florida, the school was opened in 1900 and at least 96 boys died between 1911 and 1970. 

For the boys on the black side, it was like a trip back into time. As one man recounted to Mother Jones, “It was kind of like slavery.”  The first remains identified belonged to a 14-year-old boy who died the same year he arrived, in 1940. 

In “Coldwater,” the boys are mostly white, with a token black boy and a Latino boy. The movie premiered last year at the SXSW festival and won Best Film, Best Director (Vincent Grashaw) and Best Actor (PJ Boudousque). Filming took place in Malibu and Ventura, California.  Grashaw co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Penney.

The problem with this movie is the young boys and men are too good looking. They have regular features, good haircuts and fine physiques when they take their shirts off. They don’t look like the products of bad times at homes. We also don’t get a sense of the psychology. Why do some of the boys stay to become counselors and what drives the retired colonel to cruelty?

Instead of being just a psychological survival story, it also becomes a slasher and revenge tale. Do we cheer for the boys finally breaking the mental hold of the colonel or do we think “Lord of the Flies”?

A better examination of similar circumstances in the 2010 Norwegian movie “King of Devil’s Island.” That story is based on true events of the Boys Bastoy Prison for youths. 

“Coldwater” opens at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. 


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