The kind of earnest, well-intentioned embarrassment that some reasonable viewers will find gripping and morally urgent, Phillip Noyce’s Lakewood turns a school shooting into a thriller built around one woman and her cellphone. Having had some success with an actor and a phone in 2010’s Buried, writer Christopher Sparling returns to the well, stranding his protagonist (Naomi Watts) in the woods as she desperately tries to find out if her son is alive or dead. A case study in how storytelling contrivances can sabotage a courageously vulnerable performance, the movie addresses American parents’ deepest fears but is just one or two steps away from inviting ritualized communal mockery, à la The Room, at midnight screenings.
Watts plays Amy, whose husband died almost a year ago. Teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo) has taken the loss especially hard, and on this morning is pretending to be sick so he can avoid school and the constant harassment he faces there. After encouraging him to get out of bed and into class, Amy heads off on a jog through nearby woods.
The Bottom Line
A genuinely horrifying scenario made almost laughable by storytelling contrivances.
Fielding an array of phone calls and automated reminders while she runs, Amy reminds one of a truism too few people seem to know: If you’re texting and walking (or phoning while driving, or googling while watching a movie), you’re doing two things badly when you could do one well. This divided-attention routine, however familiar, makes for annoying viewing. But think twice before wishing for the real action to start.
Even a viewer who avoids reading loglines before seeing a movie will have a good idea what’s in store when he sees the first police car race by Amy on this tree-lined road. But it takes a while for her to realize that her community’s crisis may be her own as well. Her phone shrieks with an alert: Local schools, including her daughter’s elementary campus, are on lockdown after shootings at Noah’s high school. After many agonizing minutes, Amy is frightened to learn that Noah actually did get out of bed and to his campus. She’s evidently too far from home to jog back to her car, so she desperately starts trying to figure out how to get to the community center where authorities are reuniting parents with their kids.
Being less preoccupied with this mission than she is, viewers will be thinking about hints Noyce and Sparling have dropped: Maybe the troubled Noah is the boy with the guns.
In this variant on screens-based cinema (Searching et al.), viewers are freed from the digital device that becomes Amy’s whole world. While she fields call after call, uses maps and ride-hail apps, we gaze through treetops whose fall colors pop in John Brawley’s photography. We can anticipate what Amy doesn’t: the twisted ankle, for instance, that forces her to hobble-jog through much of the film.
Trying simultaneously to get out of the woods and to piece together exactly what’s going on with her son, Amy enlists strangers on the phone in increasingly far-fetched ways. The moment when she asks a mechanic at a garage to keep an eye out for her son — “if you see a teenage boy with brown hair …” — was, for this viewer, the point at which unintentional comedy reared its head. Extremes of grief and desperation make people do and say ridiculous things; in a film, that ridiculousness can be heartbreaking, but only when we don’t feel manipulated. With so much of Sparling’s script seemingly designed to artificially complicate an already devastating situation, you might start to worry that Amy will approach the edge of the woods, see her son’s school within jogging distance, and be swatted by Bigfoot before she escapes the trees.
The last act abandons the realism we thought the movie was aiming for, ridiculously positioning Amy as a kind of negotiator, balancing two phones for a four- or five-way call with a SWAT team in the wings. Isn’t Amy’s predicament terrifying enough already, without the trappings of Hollywood thrillers and action flicks?
As in the recent Penguin Bloom, Watts gives her all to questionable material, and in this case her director’s a veteran with several fine movies to his name. But it’s not enough to sell this fundamentally flawed film, especially when it culminates in a nauseatingly obvious “This has to stop!” message about school shootings.