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(Credit: TIFF)

Film

'Lakewood' Review: Naomi Watts stars in Phillip Noyce's unabashed thriller

'Lakewood' - Phillip Noyce
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Lakewood is a drama that deals with the painful subject of school shootings, an unabashed thriller finding most of its suspense from the unusual perspective it chooses: that of a parent, hearing about the incident at her own child’s school while she is at a distance and unable to verify facts.

Naomi Watts stars as Amy Carr, mother of a teenaged boy who attends school in their small American town. The choice of subject matter was explained by director Phillip Noyce at the Toronto Film Festival screening, when he introduced the film by noting that “the script resonated with fears I’d experienced over the years, as a parent. As a father, I wanted to share this intense psychological and emotional thriller with the millions of parents who’ve been forced to experience the fears that I’ve felt.” The film does, without question, capture the terror of a parent whose child may be in danger, although it has some trouble sustaining interest over its comparatively short run time. It may also be fair to ask whether a thriller that plays on parental fears is the best or most appropriate way to deal with the subject. 

The film begins with a carefully benign and ordinary situation: Amy Carr getting her two children off to school. The older child, Noah (Colton Gobbo) is mildly contrary and irritable and has been withdrawn since his father’s recent death, details that will become more significant as the story continues. That done, Amy sets out for a long run along a nearby woodland trail. The central plot is introduced when Amy is halfway through the forest, and receives a call on her mobile phone, informing her that her son’s school has been locked down due to an unspecified but serious ‘incident’.  At a considerable distance from both her home and the school, Amy has only her mobile phone as a source of information, which she uses creatively to contact anyone, however, removed from the immediate action, who might tell her what is going on. The phone aspect gives the film some of the sequestered feel of internet-based suspense films like Searching.

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Some 75% of the film is a one-woman show, consisting only of Naomi Watts, the surrounding woods, and the disembodied voices of whoever she is able to contact by phone. She continues to run in the direction of her son’s school while frantically trying to contact her son, the police, or any source that can give her answers, as fragments of information trickle in. It takes considerable skill to sustain suspense and move the story along with no props, no scene changes, only one visible setting, and no other actors until the final act. Much of the credit goes to Watts, who manages to convey the character’s full range of emotions, from mild worry to full-blown panic to determination, despite the minimal background. During the film’s press conference at TIFF, Watts talked about how intimidating and challenging it was to be the only actor in almost every scene, particularly when most of them involved running: “Some of the shots, we ran two or three miles at a time. That was the beauty of it; it was driving the emotion,” she said. “The utter exhaustion was a constant thing to grapple with. We just kept going”.

Part of Naomi Watts’ inspiration came from her connection with the storyline, which she found personally meaningful. She commented, “I kept coming back to how haunting this would be, seeing myself in this woman’s shoes, and adopting her mindset of how to struggle in complete chaos, from a state of powerlessness, to panic, to actually coming into her power. There’s so much undulation throughout her trajectory. That both terrified me and interested me. Nobody wants to see themselves in this position. We’ve all dreaded it at one time or another”.

The second challenge in limiting most of the story to a single, isolated person is in the actual shooting of the film. The intensity is maintained primarily by focusing on Amy’s helplessness, her frightening lack of information and access, rather than on conventional heroics. One of the film’s producers, Andrew Corkin, remarked during the press conference that he “knew it was going to be a challenging story to get told” due to its approach.

He noted: “In Hollywood, there probably would have been financiers and studios who would’ve said, ‘Turn her into John McLean! She should kick down the door; that’s what heroism is!’ But that’s not what this film is. It’s a really beautiful, nuanced story of a mother’s love, and the lengths that she would go to.” Another producer on the film, Dylan Sellers, said that what attracted him to the project was the unusual approach: “I thought it was a great idea, a great angle into this world, these issues, but done in a very unique way” as well as, he acknowledged, “a really good commercial thriller”.

The director, Phillip Noyce, was drawn to Christopher Sparling’s script because “it touched me, in ways that it wouldn’t have ten years ago, because now my son is a teenager, and it just touched on fears that I’d felt increasingly…not just because of the issue of gun control, but also because my thirteen-year-old is becoming his own self, and I wonder who that person is.” Lakewood does not, in fact, go into great depth as far as Amy Carr’s son, who is seen only very briefly; nor does it deal with school shootings or gun control, apart from Amy’s individual experience. Its approach actually puts these issues at a distance, by placing Amy exclusively in the foreground. As one of the producers suggested, it is a better approach than having her kick the door down, if not the best possible approach; although Naomi Watts commented that the setting, having Amy on a trail, separated from the school, her car, “spoke to Amy’s character. She was in crisis, completely alone, having to track all her resources, on her feet, in the quickest possible way”.

Producer Zack Schiller defends the concept of removing the story from the source of the panic. “The human part of the story,” he suggests, “Is what’s important to everybody. Not the spectacle of violence. It’s a story that asks you to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who’s been through the worst experience a parent can have. That’s what drew me to the project.” In his view, “We did the hard thing, which is to tell it from one perspective, not to cut away and do the traditional things that you have to do to keep the tension going.” He also allowed that the approach requires a great deal from the lead actor: “I think Naomi Watts is the only person who could have pulled this off.”

The film does provide a new and unique angle on mass shootings. It is certainly suspenseful, although having the main character communicate only via mobile phone for so long makes the action drag a bit, in spite of Watts’ excellent work. The film also begins to unwind during the final act, when Amy finally emerges from the forest, and the school situation is brought to a conclusion. Lakewood is not perfect, but it’s a decent story, a respectable effort, and as one producer notes, a really good commercial thriller.

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