The formulaic plot points pile up in Daniel Duran’s debut feature, Bravetown. A city-slicker teenager moves to the boondocks and shows those country kids what real music sounds like. A high-school dance team tries to re-inspire itself in order to win competitions. The city slicker goes to a counselor to avoid jail time, and bonds with the scruffy therapist. The town is so haunted by memories of the war in Iraq that life has stopped for all its residents. That’s a lot for one movie, and while there are some clunkily handled segues between subplots—especially in the first half-hour, as the film finds its sea legs—eventually Bravetown settles into its own unique tone and rhythm, stops being reminiscent of other movies, and becomes an eccentric, poignant hybrid. Bravetown features some heavy stuff, and Duran handles it sensitively, avoiding maudlin music or overplayed climaxes. He’s cast it beautifully, too, with fine performances by Josh Duhamel, Laura Dern, Tom Everett Scott, Lucas Till, and newcomer Kherington Payne, who got her start on So You Think You Can Dance. The film is a refreshingly thoughtful look at the lives of teenagers who are fully aware of the world outside the halls of high school.
Josh (Lucas Till) is a teenager, living in the big city with his bitter mother (Maria Bello), who says point-blank that she never wanted to have him. Josh’s life is a whirl of drugs, sex, and trouble with the law, and he DJs every night at an insanely elaborate club, dreaming of being picked up by a label. Then he overdoses, his mother washes her hands of him, and the court orders him to live with the father he’s never met, and attend counseling sessions. Josh has no choice but to pack his bags and take a bus out to the middle of America.
What Josh walks into is not kindly small-town America, rigid fundamentalist America, or any of the other flyover-country clichés. The truth reveals itself slowly to Josh, whose only contact with war is through the movie Platoon, which he loves and watches obsessively. Josh has entered a North Dakota town where the main export is soldiers. It’s been devastated by death; everyone has lost someone, and the entire town has PTSD. In one beautiful, mournful scene, the captain of the high-school dance team, Mary (Payne), shows Josh the tree in the center of town, its branches loaded down with war medals, an unofficial memorial to the local fallen. Mary’s brother died in combat, and her mother (Laura Dern) now lives in a prescription-pill fog, speaking of her dead son in the present tense, essentially forgetting she still has two living children who need her.
Bravetown isn’t anti-war, not exactly. But it is realistic about the lives of children who understand the reality of war because their fathers haven’t come home, their brothers are shipping out, and their uncles have came back as invalids. Against this solemn backdrop, high-school life goes on. Josh is a sullen guy, but he’s drawn into the community almost against his will. One night at a school dance, he takes over the DJ booth and singlehandedly turns a lame event into the best night ever. The beleaguered dance team approaches him afterward: Could he put together some mixes for their routines? They need new music, and they haven’t won one competition the whole year! He doesn’t want to do it because he has one foot out of this podunk town already. But of course, he caves. He’s also drawn to Mary, although she seems to want nothing to do with him.
All clichés. But against this backdrop of raw grief and unmanaged pain, the dance competitions and rehearsals—not to mention the tentative romance between Josh and Mary—take on surprising energy and emotional depth. Dance represents exuberance and creativity, the life-force, the antithesis of war. Mary thinks the town needs it. She knows she needs it. There’s an urgency to those kids on the dance team that’s truly touching.
During the first scene with the therapist, Alex (Duhamel), Bravetown starts to reveal its originality and true spirit. The therapist watches a soccer game on television throughout the session with Josh, occasionally erupting into raging screams at a bad call, or roaring with ecstasy at a good play. He never once takes his eyes off the television. He orders a pizza. “See you next time,” he says at the end of the hour. Alex, too, was in Iraq. He’s got pictures on his desk of himself with his buddies in camo to prove it. But when Josh brings it up, Alex doesn’t want to talk about it. Josh, a self-centered kid, starts to notice other people, and even to be curious about them. He wants to connect with Mary. He doesn’t know how. He’s starting to engage with life for the first time. So is she. So is everyone.
There are a lot of conventional types here (stern principal, hopeful nerd, jock bully), but they’re given a wider world to play in, a more complex landscape. Bravetown treats its characters with respect. What’s best about the film is its willingness to go deep, its strange yet effective fluidity between serious scenes and dance numbers, and Duran’s grace with weighty subjects. The title intensifies in significance as the credits roll.