Often filed under the “guilty pleasure” category, an abundance of films peddle this familiar trope: A misfit protagonist uses music and/or dance to navigate the troubled teen and young adult landscape. These heroes/heroines in films like Footloose, Save the Last Dance and Step Up are often left to fend for themselves because the adults are usually just as clueless about life as they are.
Fitting perfectly—at first—into the genre is Bravetown, the debut feature by Venezuelan director Daniel Duran. Josh Harvest (Lucas Till, X-Men: First Class) is a 17-year-old who lives with his uncaring mother (Maria Bello) in New York. He leads a secret life as one of the city’s hottest club DJs and remixers. Josh overdoses during a gig and is sentenced to drug counseling instead of jail. (He has “priors” for forgery and other crimes, thus cementing his bad-boy clout for the audience.) His mother doesn’t want to deal with him and ships him off to stay with his estranged father (Tom Everett Scott) in North Dakota.
For its first two acts, Bravetown follows the fish-out-of-water formula, set to an electronic dance music (EDM) soundtrack and a thoughtful score by Angelo Milli. As Josh travels through America’s heartland, the EDM fades into the background, replaced by folkier sounds that complement cinematographer Angel Barroeta’s pastoral landscapes. It’s in North Dakota that Josh’s icy exterior slowly melts away as he begins his Good Will Hunting-esque therapy sessions with counselor Alex (Josh Duhamel) and gets closer to Mary (Kherington Payne), the captain of the school’s terrible dance team.
In a cheesy—yet awesome—scene, Josh steps behind the turntables for one song during a dance team performance because the DJ’s mix offends him. Though Mary doesn’t want his help at first, the team improves with Josh’s music and eventually makes its way to the state championships. The first few dance routine scenes are entertaining and exciting, but there are too many similar scenes included throughout the film. It doesn’t help that the routines are filled with elements of cultural appropriation, with the squad taking on Bollywood, hip-hop and Asian and Latin influences, with the music and costumes to match.
In addition to the music, dance and high school hijinks, Duran and screenwriter Oscar Torres attempt to tackle much heavier themes, including PTSD, casualties of war, mental health issues, drug dependency and child abandonment, which creates an odd mashup of two seemingly different films in Bravetown. The North Dakota locale is a proverbial soldier factory that has shipped many of its sons and daughters off to war. The army recruiting station has a prime piece of real estate on the town’s main drag, American flags fly everywhere and the local high school’s teams are the Patriots. Many of its residents, Alex and Mary included, have all lost someone close in war.
The film turns so overtly melodramatic during its third act that it volleys between a Nicholas Sparks film and Tropic Thunder. Mary shows Josh a lantern-lit tree decorated with medals from the town’s lost soldiers; and Josh, obsessed with the movie Platoon, inexplicably has Mary watch it with him on a date, fully aware that her family’s been traumatized by war. And, in an uncomfortably bizarre final dance piece, the troupe performs an homage to fallen soldiers by incorporating war/death sequences into the performance. At this point, not even Tropic Thunder’s Les Grossman could have saved that ridiculous scene.
The film’s three main characters, Josh, Mary and Alex, have only a little more depth than their supporting counterparts, and that’s a shame because Duran has assembled a good cast. While Till pulls off the bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, and Duhamel brings a laid-back charm onscreen, the other adults in Bravetown are one-note characters relegated to the background. The actors—no matter how good—can only do so much with what they’re given. Scott plays Josh’s timid father at a loss on how to communicate with his son; as Mary’s mentally ill mother, Dern’s character is in a perpetual state of confusion. Bello’s appearance is little more than a cameo at the beginning of the film, but she makes an impact on Josh’s life by telling him that while she never wanted to have him, she still made a really big sacrifice: “I stopped doing drugs for you.”
At nearly two hours, Bravetown could have used another pass in the editing room. Torres’s script includes too many unnecessary scenes—dance and otherwise—and characters who don’t move the story forward. Did we really need a fight scene between Josh and Mary’s ex? Why do we need the ex at all? Josh, Mary and their families have so many larger issues to face that a school-boy fight could easily be jettisoned. While the filmmakers’ attempt at busting the formulaic nature of the teen angst drama is admirable, Bravetown gets too muddled in its seriousness. Sometimes a guilty pleasure movie is all we need.
Director: Daniel Duran
Writer: Oscar Torres
Starring: Josh Duhamel, Maria Bello, Laura Dern, Lucas Till, Kherington Payne, Sharlene Taulé, Tom Everett Scott, Jae Head
Release Date: May 8, 2015 in limited release and VOD
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.