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In “Boot Camp”, director Christian Duguay has given us a strange mishmash of a film. At first glance, the movie seems to be a well-intentioned exposé of the abuses in juvenile detention camps, so-called “tough love” boot camps where at-risk teens are sent in lieu of rehab or prison. But at some point, someone decided to target the movie to mainstream teen audiences, which apparently involved prettying up the cast, and dumbing down the script. The movie was completed in 2007 but is only now seeing a DVD release, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s too bleak and depressing to be marketed as popcorn entertainment, but too hokey and glossy to be taken seriously as an arthouse message movie.
Mila Kunis stars as Sophie, a teenage girl who’s starting to act out against her parents, and cause ugly scenes in front of their well-to-do friends. In response, Sophie’s parents decide to ship her off to a boot camp program for wayward teens. She finds this out when two thugs barge into her bedroom, slap plastic handcuffs on her, and inject her full of tranquilizers.
When she wakes up, she’s on a boat to the Advanced Serenity Achievement Program (“ASAP”), a boot camp hidden away in the islands of Fiji (it’s about a 12 hour flight from the U.S. to Fiji, so that had to be one hell of a tranquilizer shot). There, Sophie and other new arrivals are outfitted with electronic ankle bracelets, then shackled to cement blocks on the beach, and left there all night to almost drown when high tide rolls in.
The next morning, they’re greeted by the guy in charge, Dr. Hall, played by Peter Stormare in full cartoon villain mode. Dr. Hall explains how being chained to cement blocks is a metaphor for their relationships with their parents, and other assorted psychobabble. It’s glaringly obvious that Hall’s not playing with a full deck and has no business running a boot camp for teens.
Once they get to the actual camp, Sophie and the other kids are subjected to ludicrously cruel treatment that eventually crosses over into straight-out torture, including starvation, beatings, and the inevitable sexual assaults. Sophie tries desperately to escape, but it appears she’s doomed to spend the rest of her teenage years in this hellhole.
In a highly improbable plot twist, Sophie’s boyfriend (Gregory Smith of “Everwood”) decides to fake being a drug addict so that he, too, can get sentenced to the ASAP camp and rescue Sophie. This is ridiculous for all sorts of reasons. How does he know his parents will react by shipping him off to boot camp? And how does he know they’ll ship him to this boot camp in particular?
Mila Kunis (famous for “That ‘70s Show”) is the headlining name, but she fails to make any sort of impression with her performance, positive or negative. Frankly, it doesn’t seem as though she’s trying all that hard. The actress who will leave an impression on you is Regine Nehy, who gives a terrific performance as one of Sophie’s friends who ends up the victim of repeated sexual abuse. Nehy also appeared in “Weapons”, another film where she endured a graphic sexual assault, and seriously, can this poor girl get just one role where she doesn’t get raped?
The filmmakers are clearly pushing an agenda here, and they’ve gone way overboard in making the people who run teen boot camps out to be soulless, evil monsters. Are there really boot camps in the world as horrible as what we’re shown here? Possibly. But the movie’s complete lack of subtlety leaves us unable to buy one single moment of it.
We know from the news that abuses happen at these boot camps—it’s why a number of states have already banned them. But it’s also true that thousands of kids say these programs turned their lives around. If these boot camps are really as horrific as the filmmakers claim, why didn’t they present them in a realistic, believable, and evenhanded way? Why not let the facts speak for themselves, instead of bludgeoning the audience with endless scenes of physical, sexual, and emotional torture?
The film likens these boot camps to a form of brainwashing, but it’s difficult to make a case against this type of manipulation when your movie itself is manipulative. It’s easy to push people’s buttons by showing young kids being relentlessly beaten, but I imagine most teens in the target audience will quickly grow numb to the film’s bleak tone, and the utter hopelessness that pervades every scene.
And in an incredibly disingenuous move, they stamped the word “UNRATED” across the DVD cover—a marketing tool usually reserved for films with “too hot for theaters” style titillation. This might lead some to think that “Boot Camp” is escapist entertainment, when it’s anything but. A realistic account of life in teen boot camps without the depressing, heavy-handed “message” could have made for a compelling story, but unfortunately, that’s not the kind of story the filmmakers wanted to tell.
Christian Duguay (director) / Agatha Dominik, John Cox (screenplay)
CAST: Mila Kunis … Sophie
Gregory Smith … Ben
Peter Stormare … Norman Hail
Regine Nehy … Trina
Alejandro Rae … Jack
Christopher Jacot … Danny
Tygh Runyan … Logan