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TIFF 2021: Naomi Watts tries to outrun disaster in the horrendous Lakewood

Lakewood (TIFF)

Phillip Noyce and Naomi Watts team up for a preposterous, formulaic high-concept thriller that does nothing tasteful with its premise.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Lakewood uses the circumstances and technical limitations brought about by one of the great tragedies of our age, the COVID-19 outbreak, as the basis for a gimmicky and ultimately gross would-be thriller. If it had been made by beginning filmmakers trying to call attention to themselves via a tacky exploitation film, this might have been slightly forgivable. The problem is that it’s been made by a number of extremely talented people, which makes the results are even worse. After all, its tasteless and hollow manipulations are been offered up by people who really should know better.

Naomi Watts, who is the center of what is mostly a one-woman show, is one of the most extraordinary actresses of our era. Director Phillip Noyce has had an admittedly uneven career as a filmmaker in recent years, but his best work, such as the masterful Dead Calm (1989), Clear and Present Danger (1994), and The Quiet American (2002), has shown him to have a gift for staging tension-filled action setpieces and quieter character-driven moments.

Screenwriter Chris Sparling is the guy who wrote Buried (2010), another gimmicky thriller that made the most of its gimmick. These are smart people, and the fact that they all thought that this was a good project to take on is baffling beyond belief.

Watts plays Amy Carr, a woman traumatized by the car crash death of her husband almost exactly one year prior. One morning, after putting her moppet daughter on the school bus, she attempts to rouse her troubled teenaged son Noah (Colton Gobbo) and get him off to school, but it becomes obvious that he’s not into it that morning. Not long after she sets off on her regular morning run through the woods, she’s hit by a barrage of phone calls and hardly even notices a number of police cars rushing past her. 

These are smart people, and the fact that they all thought that this was a good project to take on is baffling beyond belief.

Eventually, an alert arrives over her phone that the schools are on lockdown because of an ongoing incident that eventually reveals itself to be a possible shooter at Noah’s school. It becomes exponentially worse for Amy when figures out that Noah did go off to school after all. Amy continues to race through the woods in a desperate effort to get to the school. All the while, she continues to use her phone to juggle calls and call up news reports in the hopes of getting any further word on Noah, who isn’t answering his phone. Then she gets a new piece of information that simultaneously knocks her for a loop and forces her to redouble her efforts to get to her destination before it’s too late.

For many people, using the concept of a school shooting as a backdrop for your high-concept thriller would be the epitome of bad taste, but I suppose a talented filmmaker could use that gut-punch premise as a starting point for a well-crafted thriller. That’s not the case here, though, as Lakewood proves to be a staggeringly clumsy and ineffective example of the genre.

For starters, the notion of watching a frenzied mom jogging through the woods while making/fielding phone calls is not especially gripping to start with and Noyce is unable to figure out a way to make it compelling from a visual standpoint. Sparling’s screenplay tries to juice things up with any number of crashingly obvious plot developments that only heighten the “ick” factor, and throws in so many additional obstacles in her path you half-expect her to go a couple of rounds with Jason Voorhees at some point. 

Watts simply can’t do anything with a character who basically hears about a school shooting and demands to speak to the manager.

Watts is on screen for virtually every moment and does her damndest to try to put a human face on this inhumane claptrap. While her sheer professionalism is to be admired, not even her efforts can help make sense of some of the story points she is asked to sell here. These range from convincing a nearby auto shop employee to wander over to an active crime scene to see if Noah’s car is in the school parking lot (“If you see a teenager with brown hair and black shoes. . . “) to the highly unlikely multi-phone conversation she gets into at the ludicrous climax. For all of her efforts, Watts simply can’t do anything with a character who basically hears about a school shooting and demands to speak to the manager.

Equal parts trashy and tedious, Lakewood is the kind of would-be hot button thriller that leaves you feeling vaguely unclean after watching it. I have no idea what could have possessed people like Watts and Noyce to think that this was a project worthy of their gifts. Furthermore, I have no idea why TIFF would elect to squander a festival slot—a Gala Presentation, no less—on something as junky and inept as this. Well, it was filmed in Ontario’s North Bay area, and the forest does get plenty of screen time to show off its beauty. That said, after watching it, the woods may petition to have themselves removed from the credits. 

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.