Review: ‘Lakewood,’ starring Naomi Watts

September 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Naomi Watts in “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

[Editor’s Note: After this movie premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions acquired the movie and changed the movie’s title from “Lakewood” to “The Desperate Hour.”]

“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.

Naomi Watts in “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Vertical Entertainment/ Roadside Attractions)

“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 phones, 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.

UPDATE: Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Above Suspicion’ (2021), starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston and Johnny Knoxville

May 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Above Suspicion” (2021)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky from 1988 to 1989, the crime drama “Above Suspicion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted woman becomes a confidential informant to the FBI, and complications ensue when she gets emotionally involved with the FBI agent who is her contact.

Culture Audience: “Above Suspicion” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable and pulpy crime movies that put more emphasis on being tacky than being suspenseful.

Johnny Knoxville and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The cheap-looking and tawdry drama “Above Suspicion” is based on a true crime story, but the movie foolishly gives away the ending at the very beginning of the film. In other words, if viewers don’t know what happened in this case in real life, they’ll know exactly what the outcome is in the movie’s opening scene, which has a morbid “voice from the dead” narration from the movie’s main character. “Above Suspicion” just goes downhill from there.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Above Suspicion” is one of those “flashback” movies where the narrator is telling what happened in the past. And in this movie (which takes place in 1988 and 1989), the narrator tells viewers that she’s already dead. Her name is Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke), a divorced mother of two children. She was in her late 20s when she died.

In these flashbacks of her life, Susan is a cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, marijuana-smoking ne’er do well who makes money by committing fraud. She’s been collecting government welfare checks from the state of West Virginia, which she’s not entitled to have because she actually lives in Kentucky, where she gets welfare checks too. And occasionally, Susan sells drugs to make money.

In the movie’s opening scene, Susan says in a voiceover: “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think. Thinking is painful. Knowing things is painful.”

To serve as a warning to viewers, a better way to open this movie would have been: “You know what’s the worst thing about a brain-dead movie? It wastes too much time. Watching it is painful. Knowing this movie could be so much better is painful.”

And sitting through all the cringeworthy lines that stink up this movie is painful. Chris Gerolmo wrote the “Above Suspicion” screenplay, which is based on journalist Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. People who’ve read that book will probably find this movie difficult to watch because it takes what was fascinating about this true crime book and turns it into a trashy melodrama.

Clarke, who is British in real life, attempts to give a believable and edgy performance as a Kentucky mother who’s lost her way in life and ends up falling for and clinging to a seemingly straight-laced married FBI agent. But there are moments when Clarke’s true British mannerisms come through, such as when she slips up and says the word “whilst” instead of “while” during one of the many scenes where her Susan character is yelling at someone. “Whilst” is not the kind of word that would be in the vocabulary of a Kentucky hillbilly like Susan.

Because “Above Suspicion” reveals in the opening scene that Susan is dead, the rest of this 104-minute movie is really just a countdown to Susan’s death. Given the lifestyle that she leads and what’s at stake when Susan gets involved with a married FBI agent with a squeaky-clean reputation, it’s not hard to figure out how she’ll die. And it won’t be from a drug overdose. If viewers don’t know what happened to the real Susan Smith in this case before they see “Above Suspicion,” it’ll become pretty obvious what her fate will be soon after this movie begins.

Susan lives in a dirty and disheveled house in Pikeville, Kentucky, with her sleazy ex-husband Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), who’s a small-time drug dealer. They’re still living together because they can’t afford to get their own separate places. (In real life, the name of Susan’s ex-husband was Kenneth, but he really was a drug dealer.) Susan and Cash’s two children—an unnamed daughter who’s 7 or 8 years old (played by Lex Kelli) and a son named Isom who’s 5 or 6 years old (played by Landon Durrance)—don’t say much, probably because they’re shell-shocked by living in such a dysfunctional home.

Someone who does talk a lot is Susan. She and Cash have arguments and physical fights with each other, and she gets irritable or impatient with almost anyone who crosses her path, except for her children. Two other people who live in Susan and Cash’s dumpy house are an unemployed couple in their 20s: Joe B. (played by Karl Glusman) and his girlfriend Georgia Beale (played by Brittany O’Grady), who don’t seem to do much but sleep all day. Joe met Cash when they were in prison together. Cash is the one who invited Joe to stay at the house after Joe got out of prison. Needless to say, Susan isn’t very happy about it.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Joe makes inappropriate sexual comments to Susan, who understandably gets upset. Joe also calls her “Susie,” which she hates. But then, Susan also takes her anger out on Georgia about it. Susan bursts into the room where Georgia is sleeping and berates her about Joe being a creep. As Susan storms back out of the room, she screams at Georgia, “Pay me my rent money, bitch!”

Joe actually has been making money, but in an illegal way. He’s secretly a bank robber who has been targeting banks in cities near Pikeville, with Georgia’s help as his occasional getaway driver. Susan knows this secret because Joe’s red Chevy pickup truck fits the news media’s description of the getaway car. And she’s found Joe’s stash of cash with the guns that were used in the robberies.

“Above Suspicion” has some druggie party scenes that are exactly what people might expect. And it’s only a matter of time before fights break out at these parties. Susan’s volatile younger brother Bones (played by Luke Spencer Roberts) predictably gets in one of these fights, which leads to a particularly violent scene that was fabricated for this movie, just to add more melodrama.

Susan says in a voiceover: “Welcome to Pikeville, the town that never lets go.” She also says that in Pikeville, which is plagued by drug addiction, there are two main ways that people make money: “the funeral business or selling drugs.” And earlier in the film, this is how Susan describes herself: “I was a regular girl once. But things go wrong, as things will.”

Susan’s life takes a fateful turn when she meets Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston), an ambitious and fairly new FBI agent, who has transferred to Pikeville to investigate the bank robberies. When Susan first sees Mark, who’s two years older than she is, she describes him like a hunk straight out of a romance novel. It’s lust at first sight for Susan.

And when Susan finds out that Mark is the FBI agent leading the investigation into the robberies, she sees it as an opportunity to get to know him better. It isn’t long before she drops hints to Mark that she knows who the bank robber is, but she’s afraid to be exposed as a snitch. Mark offers to pay Susan for bits and pieces of information, and she becomes his main confidential informant.

Susan dangles enough tips for Mark to investigate to keep him coming back for more. There’s an ulterior motive, of course. Susan wants to seduce Mark. And because Mark is so different from the men she’s used to being involved with, Susan starts to fall in love with him. However, it’s debatable whether it’s true love or if it’s Susan just wanting a ticket out of her dead-end life. At one point, when Mark asks Susan what she wants most in her life, she answers, “Rehab and money.”

Susan knows that Mark is happily married and has a baby daughter with his wife Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe), but that doesn’t seem to deter Susan from having a fantasy that Mark will eventually leave Kathy to be with Susan. When Susan and Mark meet in out-of-the-way and deserted places in other Kentucky cities such as Portersville and Martin, it’s just like the clandestine way that secret lovers meet. Susan starts to tell Mark that they both make a great team, but she wants to make their “partnership” about more than FBI work.

“Above Suspicion” portrays Susan as toning down some of her vulgar and mean-spirited ways to try to seduce Mark. She gives him a lot of flattery and attention. And anyone watching this movie will not be surprised when Mark starts to fall for Susan too because he’s become slightly bored with his marriage. But Mark doesn’t feel so strongly about Susan that he wants to leave his wife. Mark has a big ego, and he enjoys being with someone who fuels that ego. Huston’s portrayal of Mark is as someone whose top priority in life is being the best at his job and getting recognition and praise for it.

Even if Mark were an available bachelor, Mark and Susan’s relationship has too many other issues, including a power imbalance and a difference in their social classes. And most troubling of all for Mark’s career is that getting sexually involved with Susan is a breach of ethics and an automatic compromise of the evidence that Mark is getting from her for this investigation. And once the investigation is over, where does Susan fit into Mark’s life?

Clarke and Huston (who is also British in real life) aren’t terrible in their roles, but they are hindered by a subpar screenplay. Huston’s Mark character is often written as two-dimensional, while Clarke’s Susan character displays over-the-top trashiness that becomes increasingly annoying, especially when Susan begins stalking Mark and his wife Kathy. It’s supposed to make Susan look emotionally needy, lovesick and vulnerable, but her obsession with Mark only makes her look mentally unhinged. As for Knoxville, his abusive Cash character is just another version of the scumbags that Knoxville usually portrays in movies.

There are some supporting characters in the movie that don’t add much to the story. Susan has a concerned older sister named Jolene (played by Thora Birch), who lives in West Virginia and occasionally calls Susan. Mark has a colleague named Todd Eason (played by Chris Mulkey), who’s retiring from the FBI in six months. There are an informant named Denver Rhodes (played by Omar Benson Miller) and an international drug dealer named Rufus (played by Brian Lee Franklin), who both appear in the last third of the movie.

Noyce’s direction of “Above Suspicion” aims for the movie to be gritty noir, but it’s really just low-budget junk. It’s very easy to predict how this story is going to end. And until that ending, which Susan already blabbed about in the voiceover narration, it’s just one scene after another of contrasting Susan’s riff-raff life with Mark’s law-enforcement life. These two worlds end up crashing in the most horrific of ways. And it’s too bad that the overall result is that “Above Suspicion” is a cinematic train wreck.

Lionsgate released “Above Suspicion” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 18, 2021.

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