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The 15 Best Movies Complex Saw at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival

11. Coldwater

Director: Vincent Grashaw
Stars: PJ Boudousqué, James C. Burns, Chris Petrovski, Octavius J. Johnson, Nicholas Bateman, Stephanie Simbari

Accomplished and dealing out powerful damage, Coldwater should be a calling card for first-time feature director Vincent Grashaw. Often at film festivals like SXSW, many of the narrative entries look and feel unpolished—sometimes that works in the film's favor, other times it's the source of criticism. Coldwater, on the other hand, has the storytelling maturity, gripping pace, and grade-A performances (from a group of unknown actors) that one would find in a veteran's third or fourth movie.

Working with some heavy subject matter didn't hurt Grashaw either. Set in an off-the-grid teenage rehabilitation compound deep into the wilderness, Coldwater presents a world of cruel, unusual, and illegal discipline that, as Grashaw pointed out during the screening's Q&A, exists in more harshness than he shows in his film. That's alarming to think about, too, since Coldwater doesn't shy away from brutality.

Ryan Gosling lookalike PJ Boudousqué gives a commanding performance as Brad Lunders, a troubled youth who sells drugs, hates his widowed mother's new boyfriend, and loves his girlfriend even when she chastises him for dealing. A tragedy strikes that finally convinces his mother to pay a couple of goons to physically remove Brad from his bedroom one night, toss him into the back of a van, and sent him off to the Coldwater campus, where a hard-nosed, retired marine colonel (James C. Burns) runs the place with a toughness that'd make Full Metal Jacket's Sergeant Hartman wince.

The hell that is the Coldwater facility is a fully realized and traumatic world. Grashaw and co-writer Mark Penney take their time to establish a large ensemble of characters, all of whom register emotionally and are played with a collective assuredness by the film's gifted cast of twenty-something males. Whenever someone gets beaten down or stuck in a hot box with their arms tied above their heads (which happens quite a bit), the pain is tangible.

And as Coldwater unpredictable energy escalates into forcible violence and pure darkness, Grashaw's intense debut generates raw suspense.

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