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Lakewood film review
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Film

TIFF 2021: Lakewood is a Gimmicky School Shooting Thriller

Lakewood Review

If there’s one more type of movie that’s more fraught than one in which the protagonist is alone in one fixed location for all or most of the running time, it’s a movie about a school shooting. 

Lakewood, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is both. And the film, which feels less like a festival film than a piece of studio schlock that gets dumped in January, doesn’t quite succeed at either.

It all feels exploitative and gross, while also failing to sustain the suspense, with a plot in which multiple points are telegraphed way in advance. And one gets the sense that this film was greenlit in part because there wasn’t much risk of filming one actress, alone, in Canada in the pandemic summer of 2020. Watts gives it her all, but there’s just too much that’s wrong here. 

Lakewood, directed by veteran filmmaker Philip Noyce and written by Buried screenwriter Christopher Sparling, has a pretty simple gimmick: A busy, recently widowed mom (Naomi Watts) is going out for a jog while having to deal with a series of escalating crises. Then comes the worst crisis of all: There’s an active shooter situation at her son’s high school, she doesn’t know that he’s safe, and he may even be the shooter. Lakewood is set in nearly real-time, kind of like an episode of 24

Thus ensues a frantic series of phone calls, to the son himself, to police, to friends, to an auto body shop, and others. It very much recalls the similar Tom Hardy movie Locke, which was also assembled entirely from phone calls, but that film had a narrative momentum that Lakewood lacks. The film never really gets beyond its gimmick. 

The other problem is that it just feels wrong to build such a pedestrian thriller around such a serious, tragic subject. Mass, a drama from this year’s Sundance, was about the meeting of the parents of the victim and shooter in a school shooting. But Mass took its subject matter a lot more seriously, and sort of earned the right to address the issue, in a way that Lakewood never does. It also implies that high-level hostage-negotiation with gunmen — which, as demonstrated by the TIFF documentary Hold Your Fire, is complicated, very different work — is something that any old amateur can do with no training. 

There’s one big circle that Lakewood can’t quite square: We know the film is going to imply that the son is the shooter, but also that it’s almost certainly not going to follow through on making him the shooter. That would be a very different kind of movie- it was actually made, in fact, as Beautiful Boy in 2010, with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello. But this isn’t that, and we know early on that it isn’t that. 

Dave Cullen’s great book about the 1999 Colorado high school massacre, Columbine, shows just how high the potential for exploitation is- as well as the rapid spread of bad information – when it comes to school shootings. 

Also, giving the son the name “Noah” seems to somewhat grossly recall Noah Pozner, one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2012. Perhaps I only noticed that because I have a son of my own named Noah, who was 2 years old at the time of that mass shooting. Meanwhile, Lakewood also takes a previously unhinted-at turn into politics in its final scene, a shift that’s somewhat jarring. 

There’s also the issue the film practically feels like a commercial for Apple. Watts is on her iPhone constantly, and always using FaceTime, Siri, and other iOS features in her quest to save her son. The product placement isn’t even this egregious in Apple’s own productions. (I saw the movie the same day the Wall Street Journal released a video investigation about iPhones on Ted Lasso and other such shows.) 

For all I know, Lakewood will connect deeply with audiences, whenever it arrives. But while Naomi Watts is very good in it, it’s one of the TIFF films that I liked the least. 

The 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking place September 9–18, is tailored to fit the moment, with physical screenings and drive-ins, digital screenings, virtual red carpets, press conferences, and industry talks. Find all our coverage here.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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