TIFF ‘21 – ‘Lakewood’ Delivers a Hollow Message About School Shootings

Still from Lakewood. Naomi Watts is in mid-run, one hand curled in front of her. The background is an out of focus blur of green and brown forest. She is wearing a grey hoodie and a dark blue beanie hat, from underneath there are are the white wires of headphones hanging down.
Image Courtesy of TIFF

Naomi Watts can always be counted on for a powerhouse performance, but the surrounding material doesn’t always match up. Unfortunately, this is the case for the single-person thriller Lakewood directed by Phillip Noyce. Lakewood follows a suburban mom named Amy Carr (Watts) who has every parent’s nightmare come true: her child is in lockdown with an active school shooter. 

In the opening scene, Amy wakes up her irritable teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo) so he can make it to school on time. A dark cloud hangs over the Carr family this week because it is almost the year-long anniversary of the death of Amy’s husband. After encouraging Noah to start his day, Amy takes a jog through the expansive, winding woods. There are numerous overhead shots of the picturesque Ontario landscape, and though the vistas are beautiful, the repetitiveness of such shots becomes annoying. 

While she runs, Amy goes through a routine of phone calls, social media posts, and searching her music playlist for the perfect song, until she receives the heart-stopping news that a shooter is present at Noah’s high school.  Trapped in the deepest part of the forest, she must race against time to save him. Although this sounds like a nail-biting premise, it quickly descends into idiocy. 

The dizzy camera matches Amy’s terror as she tries to escape the convoluted woods. She wrestles with an Uber driver on the phone trying to find a pickup spot; he is nearly an hour away and can’t easily get to her exact location, even though she is not actually that far from the road. Amy’s desperation to break away from the thicket is gripping at first, but as her breathless running goes on and on and on, and she makes no plausible actions to try and find another ride, it gets downright wearying. Somehow, Noyce can’t find a way to make this static location visually interesting even with such a high caliber, captivating star at the film’s centre. 

While Lakewood aims to match the riveting intensity of other single-person thrillers such as Locke or Buried, what is missing is any sense of emotional connection to Watts’ protagonist. Amy feels like a cipher, a simple sketch of a mother figure with no distinguishing qualities. We are given no insight into her inner life—none of her desires, interests, or hobbies outside of raising a family as a widow. Even the conversations she has with her friends, who should know her on another level, outside of motherhood, are bland. Although Watts perfectly expresses Amy’s distressed emotional state, the audience still has no sense of who she is. The film may have benefited from avoiding the single-person gimmick to show how other characters in the community were being affected by the tragic event. 

As the film progresses, the little logic in Chris Sparling’s script flies out the window. Miraculously, Amy ends up discussing the investigation with a detective, reserving a 911 operator all to herself, and—the most ludicrous of all—even talks to the gunman. The only phone call that does not feel completely absurd is with an auto shop worker who investigates whether or not her son actually attended  school that morning; their conversation has a great sense of mystery and suspense. At one point, we are made to believe that Noah is the shooter himself, which would have been an interesting plot route sending the film in a completely different direction, but it ends up being a sloppy red herring. 

Noyce builds up to a melodramatic finale where Amy finally makes it outside the school just in time to receive a warm embrace from her surviving son. Unlike other entries in this genre, the journey Lakewood goes on completely falls flat. Thanks to the implausible plot twists, the exhilarating riptide of emotions in the film’s very solid beginning seem dull by the end. 

Lakewood caps off with an incredibly hollow “school shootings are bad” soliloquy from Noah’s Instagram live feed. Perhaps Gobbo was trying to depict Noah’s trauma, but his performance comes across as vacuous and borderline apathetic. Noah’s half-hearted speech about the horrors of school shootings and how to prevent them is the final nail in the coffin of this tiresome drama. 

Noyce has good intentions in wanting to amplify what an awful reality this kind of situation is for parents and, sadly, what many American families fear or have already faced. Watts conveys that terror in a predictably strong performance but it is not enough to anchor the ridiculous plot turns that weigh the film down and sink it into emotionally cloying absurdity. Despite its interesting premise, Lakewood is a tedious film where all of the high-stakes tension and excitement quickly drains like the air out of a balloon.

Lakewood had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

by Caroline Madden

Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day AfternoonBaby It’s YouInside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. 

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