When a film can be described as the story of survivor’s grief being cured by interpretive dance, you might envision some sort of lofty documentary. But “Bravetown” is anything but. It’s a weird combination of saccharine drama with “Footloose,” deadly earnest but utterly incredible, the good intentions overwhelmed by silly theatrics.
Lucas Till, a square-jawed fellow who looks every bit his twenty-four years, isn’t terribly convincing playing seventeen-year old Josh Harvest, a New York kid who works a club as a DJ who plays supposedly cutting-edge music for the rockin’ crowd. When he collapses from a drug overdose one night—just the latest in a string of petty offenses—his single mom (Mario Bella), a recovering addict, finally gives up trying to handle him and arranges with the judge to send him off to his father (Tom Everett Scott), who abandoned the family years ago but is now ready to take him in. Before the boy leaves she harangues him for blaming her for his troubles, admitting she never wanted a child in the first place.
So Josh arrives understandably sullen in Paragon, North Dakota, a town that wears its patriotism on its sleeve while sublimating its communal grief over all the fathers and sons that have been lost while serving in the military, which seems to be the sole employer ready to hire its young. It’s in this sad context that Josh will become a man by learning to care about others rather than concentrating only on himself.
This personal epiphany comes about when Josh is persuaded to use his talent at creating hip music to help the high school’s perennially disrespected dance team become a contender. In the process he gets romantically involved with its initially standoffish captain, Mary (Kherington Payne) and befriending her little brother Tony (Jae Head). The town’s grief—symbolized by a tree on which the medals won by residents in war are hung—is also encapsulated in their mother Annie (Laura Dern), who’s still suffering crippling emotional pain arising from the combat death of their older brother. It’s also represented in Josh’s court-ordered counselor Alex (Josh Duhamel), who spends his sessions with the boy watching soccer games on television until the kid begins opening up to him. But he’s also a veteran, and one with a secret about his time in the service that hobbles him emotionally as well.
It doesn’t take long for Josh to turn the dance team’s fortunes around—it’s a ridiculously easy thing to do, it appears—and before long they’re in the running for a state championship. Of course, Josh’s relationship with Mary gets him a couple of beatings from her ex-boyfriend, the town bully, and his thuggish friends (a seemingly obligatory plot point that’s just dropped when it becomes inconvenient). But in the end the boy realizes that the town won’t be able to break out its paralyzing grief until people can begin honestly opening up to one another. And the means he and Mary contrive to bring that about is to present as their team’s championship routine a battlefield-themed dance recalling one of Josh’s favorite films, “Platoon.” And we’re supposed to believe it works.
Writer Oscar Orlando Torres and director Daniel Duran obviously intend for us to take all this very seriously; the ponderous tone and dirge-pacing attest to that. But the inane dance sequences militate against our doing so. There’s some compensation in the performances of Duhamel, who seems to enjoy playing things loose, and Dern, who brings the sense of ethereal poignancy that’s become her trademark to a difficult role. Young Head is engaging, if amateurish, as Josh’s nerdy little friend.
“Bravetown” is professionally made; cinematographer Angel Barroeta even kicks off the picture with a long tracking shot that indicates he’s watched “Touch of Evil” or “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” But all the sheen is in the service of a script that frankly demeans the burden of loss so many Americans have to bear as a result of the nearly incessant wars of recent decades by suggesting that their plight can be addressed with something as simple as a few dance steps. Even if you applaud the filmmakers’ desire to confront a very real social issue confronting the nation, you have to admit that the way they’ve chosen to do so is peculiar indeed.