Boot Camp (2007)

| September 6, 2009

I came into Boot Camp with lowered expectations. It seemed to be just another teen exploitation drama, after all. Surprisingly, the content rose above the marketing and, in avoiding the black-and-white didacticism of most films that depict wronged teens struggling against mindless authority, there is actually a lot of substance here, with points made for each side.
The story in a nutshell: Dr. Hail (Peter Stormare, Premonition) and his sister Rhonda (Barbara Gates Wilson, Lies My Mother Told Me) run a “Tough Love” style boot camp on an island near Fiji. In quick order at the beginning of the film, we meet Sophie (Mila Kunis, ”That 70s Show”), her boyfriend Ben (Gregory Edward Smith, ”Everwood”), as well as the as yet unconnected Danny (Christopher Jacot, ”Eureka”) and Jack (Alejandro Rae, Final Destination 2). Danny is whisked off by Dr. Hail’s staff immediately with his parents’ consent. Jack presumably follows shortly. After a few brief scenes of exposition, Sophie is taken as well, ironically just after proposing to Ben – hoping that marriage will emancipate her as a minor and free her from her parents. He only wants to get married if it’s about love, not if it’s for legal reasons, but the point becomes moot as she is whisked away, and is never brought up again once Ben also lands at Camp Serenity.
The tactics that Hail’s people use, especially on Sophie, do seem rather questionable if not illegal – they grab her at a party, cuff her boyfriend in a storage closet, then inject her with a sedative, and this led me to expect ninety minutes of screaming drill sergeants led by a stereotypical villain with no question that Boot Camp = Evil.
Happily, I was wrong. What makes the film work so well is that we do get both sides, and in fact when Sophie finally does break down during her moment in the confession circle, it’s hard to not side with her mother and stepfather and conclude that the spoiled little bitch belongs exactly where she is. At the same time, we never lose sympathy for her and it’s hard to agree that she deserves what she gets. A lot of credit for this goes to Kunis herself, who has left her Jackie persona behind and comes across as a strong, intelligent teen who would probably turn out all right if she felt like she was being respected.
Most of the other campers are nowhere near as developed and Danny and Jack mostly drop out of the story until they’re needed, but we’re given a knock-out story with Trina (Regine Nehy, Lakeview Terrace). I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that the action she painfully admits to in the confession circle turns out to be the same thing she winds up doing in order to curry favor and gain her release. Nehy takes the roller-coaster ride with this character and brings us along. Only nineteen at the time of this film, if her agent can place her in just one high-profile project, you’ll see her career take off.
But, for me, the real fascination of the film was that it made me think and ponder the arguments from Dr. Hail’s side and from that of his teen “patients”. The camp in the film is clearly somewhat modeled on the infamous Stanford experiment. I won’t go into it in depth here, except to say that Camp Serenity, the film version, divides its clients into a hierarchy of three – black shirt, yellow shirt, white shirt – and, in human psychology, that kind of division alone, with different rules and privileges for each hierarchy, is exactly what keeps us from going all Lord of the Flies on each other. As a method for curing recalcitrant teens, it does have a lot of promise, because it turns the inmates into each others’ keepers. Hail also adopts a very common military practice of collective punishment, which is a hallmark of American military Boot Camps everywhere, and which figured so prominently in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket – namely, everyone pays for the failure of one. The unstated corollary, of course, is that everyone will pretty quickly kick the screw-up into line, before the Drill Master notices. (Knowledge of this will immediately answer the biggest question through most of the film – why don’t these kids just band together, kick the crap out of their keepers, and escape. Well, see above.)
What’s surprisingly missing, especially in a film called Boot Camp, is the classic “asshole with a crew-cut” screaming obscenities in people’s faces while they try to do pushups in the mud, but, again, that’s mostly due to the even-handed treatment of the concept. Oh, we do have the obligatory asshole with a crew-cut, Logan (Tygh Runyan, ”Battlestar Galactica” (2006)), and if there’s anything approaching a villain in this film, he’s it.
Ultimately, I think Boot Camp was not served well by being aimed at a theatrical release, as the material is a bit thin for theatres, and this isn’t exactly Oscar caliber material. (Ultimately, it never played the American market, as it is not MPAA rated). It should have been a Lifetime movie, serving to convince Xanax-addled Soccer moms not to send their kids off for Tough Love just because they smoked a joint at a party or sent nude photos to their FaceBook friends – but definitely consider the option if they pull a knife on Dad or try to torch the guest house because you wouldn’t let them go to that Kings of Leon concert.
Now available on DVD, it would actually be a good family viewing choice. Intelligent enough for the parents, but focused enough on the kids for a teen audience, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking ninety-nine minutes that might just get parents and kids talking to each other, in an intelligent manner, about the age old “Us vs. Them” attitude that is an inevitable result of reproduction.
Note to the parents: although it was never rated, there’s nothing in this film that your kids hadn’t already seen or heard by the age of twelve, assuming they have access to the internet, or they ever leave the house, or they have friends the same age. If you have teenage sons: you can almost sort of see Mila Kunis side-boob in one scene. Letting them watch this movie in your presence without judgment will open up the communication doors like nothing else. And I’m not being facetious. If you have teenage daughters, they will inevitably point to the screen at the end and scream, “See? I’m just like her. You don’t understand me!” But maybe now you will…

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