The one distinctive element of juvie drama Coldwater is its emphasis on emotional rather than physical trauma during its several prison torture scenes. The detention center's officials -- all stone-faced or cackling cardboard villains -- are prone to handcuffing their teenage charges to poles overnight, slitting their almost-healed leg wounds, and prying off their fingernails. But what you'll likely remember about these sequences is the way the camera burrows into the inmates' screaming, wailing, pleading faces, long after their tormentors have exited. That aside, Vincent Grashaw's emphatically dour feature-length directorial debut is a rather standard prison-youth flick, in the vein of Bad Boys and Scum, with a braying us-against-them mentality: When the guards finally receive their comeuppance, only one gets any humanizing treatment from the filmmakers; the others' demises are dismissively cut.
As in Coldwater's predecessors, the inmates are ethnically and mentally diverse. There's a dumb kid, a mute kid, a psycho kid ready to implode. Unlike those films, though, there isn't much camaraderie among the boys, nor tension. They are merely victims to be flogged, stabbed, and humiliated by the staff; most are indistinguishable from one another, and the hero (P.J. Boudousqué), sent up the river after a drug deal gone fatally wrong, is a blank. Coldwater is elegantly shot -- by Jayson Crothers -- and Grashaw manages a few neat flashbacks-within-flashbacks, which make the story seem more mysterious than it is. He's certainly made a harrowing film, but a little comic relief, especially with a young cast this talented, wouldn't have hurt. Coldwater is almost boastfully grim.