Review: ‘Lakewood,’ starring Naomi Watts

September 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Naomi Watts in “Lakewood” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Lakewood”

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. city called Lakewood, the dramatic film “Lakewood” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed mother races against time to get to the high school where her teenage son is at during a school shooting. 

Culture Audience: “Lakewood” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Naomi Watts, but this movie is an erratic mix of realistic suspense and unrealistic melodrama.

“Lakewood” is intriguing but infuriating in how it depicts a mother’s frantic attempts to “rescue” her teenage son during a deadly shooting spree at his high school. Thanks to star Naomi Watts’ talent, the movie authentically shows how parents would panic in this situation and would want to do whatever it takes to get their children to safety. However, “Lakewood” becomes a tacky melodrama and demolishes a lot of the movie’s credibility with a few manipulative plot twists, including the heroic mother suddenly acting as if she’s a member of law enforcement.

Directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Chris Sparling, “Lakewood” takes place in a fictional suburban U.S. city called Lakewood, but the movie was actually filmed in North Bay, Ontario. “Lakewood” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Watts portrays central character Amy Carr, a widow who is grieving over the loss of her beloved husband Peter (played by Chris Marren in brief flashbacks), who died in a car accident nearly a year before this story takes place. Amy and Peter’s two children are Noah (played by Colton Gobbo), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, and Emily (played by Sierra Maltby), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. They live in a middle-class area on a quiet, tree-lined street.

The movie begins on what the Carr family thinks will be a typical and uneventful day. It’s a Friday in September. Amy is shown signs of being depressed because she’s lying in bed, looking mournful, and listening to a self-help motivational recording on her phone. She decides she’s going to take a personal day off from work (she works as an auditor for the fictional Marion County Division of Taxation), so she texts her supervisor and says that she will be back at work on Monday.

Not long after a school bus picks up Emily to take her to Lakewood Elementary School, Amy goes into Noah’s room to see if he’s awake. Noah attends Lakewood High School. The door to Noah’s bedroom is barricaded with furniture, but Amy manages to get inside. To her dismay, she sees that Noah is still in bed.

Noah says he’s feeling sick and won’t be going to school. Amy makes an attempt to convince him to get out of bed, but he refuses. Amy then leaves him alone and says that they’ll talk about it later after she comes back from a morning jog. Viewers find out a little later that Amy doesn’t plan to be gone for long because she has an appointment later that morning with a repairman who is coming to the home to fix a hole in a wall that Noah punched out of anger.

It’s explained later in the story that Amy’s relationship with Noah has become very strained, ever since Peter died. Noah was very close to Peter and took his tragic death very hard. Noah has become emotionally distant but also shows flashes of anger, as evidenced by the hole he punched in the wall. During her morning jog, Amy finds out something else about Noah through a phone conversation with one of her friends who has a child at the same high school as Noah: Noah is being bullied at school.

Amy goes for her morning jog in a nearby wooded area that’s fairly deserted. Because most of this movie chronicles Amy’s frantic race through the woods, she spends a lot of her time communicating with other people by phone. Before all hell breaks loose, she speaks to a co-worker named Greg Minor (voiced by Jason Clarke); the wall repairman (voiced by Juan Pope); her mother (voiced by Edie Mirman); and Amy’s close friend Heather (voiced by Michelle Johnston). While Amy is having these conversations, she notices some police squad cars speeding by on a nearby road.

And then, the frantic calls to Amy start. It starts with an emergency text alert that the local police have sent to announce that all of the schools in Lakewood are in lockdown and that parents and other loved ones must stay away from the schools. The police have set up a shelter at a local community center where students and their loved ones can gather, and more information will be given later. Through a series of calls and looking up information on the Internet, it isn’t long before Amy finds out that there’s an active shooter at Lakewood High School and that Noah did end up going to school that day.

Amy does a map search and finds out that she’s four miles from the community center, and it would take about one hour to get there by foot. She’s unable to reach Noah on his phone, but she finds out that Emily and the people at Emily’s school are safe and sound at the shelter. There are very few people Amy can call to pick her up in the woods to give her a ride on such short notice. The ones she calls are either not answering their phone or they are parents who are already at the shelter and don’t want to leave.

In desperate need of transportation, Amy books a ride with a Lyft driver (played by Paul Pape) to pick her up, while she continues to run in a panic through the woods. But then, the driver calls to tell her that he’s stuck in traffic and won’t get there for at least another 40 minutes. Amy doesn’t want to wait that long, so she keeps running. There’s a point in the story where she changes her plans to go to the community center and decides to go to Lakewood High School instead.

And in a melodramatic movie like this, Amy predictably stumbles and injures herself in the woods. Twice. The first injury happens early on in her race to get out of the woods. Amy sprains one of her ankles, so for the most of the movie, she runs around with a limp. In the other injury, she falls down and hits her head.

These injuries don’t stop Amy, of course. She wades through a creek, runs through the woods like a marathoner, and becomes a one-woman detective agency through a series of phone calls, text messages and Internet searches. The movie also reveals if Noah is a victim or if he’s the shooter.

Amy’s tripping in the woods isn’t the only thing that stumbles about “Lakewood.” The movie takes a steep nosedive into ridiculousness when Amy starts acting like she’s a law enforcement juggernaut. She takes certain matters into her own hands and breaks a law or two to do it. It’s not too far-fetched that a panic-stricken parent would want to act this way.

What’s far-fetched and too hard to take about this movie is that the law enforcement officers ultimately approve of what Amy does and go along with it. And that’s why “Lakewood” becomes just a crass and borderline offensive way to depict what parents would be allowed to do in an active shooter situation. This movie takes the real-life turmoil that parents and other loved ones feel in similar situations and warps the reality of how law enforcement handles these tragedies, just for the sake of making a movie more dramatic.

“Lakewood” star Watts—who is in almost every scene of “Lakewood” and is one of the movie’s producers—brings a lot of believable anguish to the role, so her performance is definitely this movie’s biggest asset. And “Lakewood” certainly has effective technical elements (such as cinematography, music, editing) in building a lot of suspense. But when the movie concocts a ridiculous fantasy of Amy being able to do certain things faster and better than trained law enforcement, it’s just so wrong, distasteful and ultimately insulting to people who have endured these school shooting traumas in real life.