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SXSW Film Review: ‘The Archer’

Variety logo Variety 3/14/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Opening a film with a claim like “Inspired by true events,” though practically de rigueur by now, isn’t always wise — especially if what you then offer is melodramatic contrivance that can only be made to look sillier by the pretense of fact-based seriousness. Such is the case with “The Archer,” an OK action thriller whose first half is uncomfortably close to women-in-prison exploitation terrain, while the remainder mixes a dash of “Freeway” with wilderness-flight suspense.

If none of this feels remotely original, it’s executed competently enough. However, its reference (expanded upon in closing onscreen text) to one of the more horrific institutional scandals in recent years — when it emerged that two Pennsylvania judges had taken kickbacks of nearly $3 million for sentencing thousands of kids as young as 10 to for-profit juvenile lockups, often for trivial offenses — has an unintended effect. Instead of confirming “The Archer” as an earnest fiction drawing attention to a real-life tragedy, it makes the film seem like a crude potboiler riding reality’s coattails.

Lauren Pierce (Bailey Noble) is a straight-A high school student with no history of trouble when she intervenes in a spat between her best friend and the latter’s jerk boyfriend. The b.f. is hospitalized as a result, and Lauren is charged with assault, but her friend doesn’t show up in court to bolster the claim of self-defense. With her right to legal defense waived by her weak-willed mother, Lauren doesn’t get the expected wrist-slap. Instead, she’s shipped off for an ominously indeterminate period to a rural detention facility by a judge who appears to treat most juveniles like career criminals.

The inaptly named Paradise Trails is a former summer camp in the desert mountains a couple hours east of Los Angeles. It’s certainly no picnic for the female youths housed under the watch of stern warden Bob (Bill Sage), whose son Michael (Michael Grant Terry) enjoys sadistic guard duties a little too much. At first Lauren seems in a privileged position: She’s an Olympics-tracked competitive archer, and Bob is a bow-hunting enthusiast appreciatively aware of her skill. But the injustices of her personal situation and the facility in general exacerbate her already-edgy temper, with the result that suddenly she’s looking at a two-year term. She plots an escape with Becky (Jeanine Mason), a tough fellow inmate who’s suffered a lot of abuse, run away several times before, and has been privy to evidence of criminal conspiracy between Bob and the judge.

Though it doesn’t descend to the crassest levels of films like “The Big Doll House,” “The Archer” nonetheless trades in some discomfortingly similar ideas, from Michael’s one-handed use of a shower-room peephole to the Sapphic frisson between juvenile leads. That the former is portrayed as icky and the latter titillating doesn’t prevent both from feeling like familiar sexploitation devices.

That said, “The Archer” is decently enough staged, paced, and acted, though it’s never gritty or shocking enough to risk being taken as seriously as it sometimes seems to demand.

Director Valerie Weiss and scenarist Casey Schroen include empowerment as well as expose elements, but the modest if slick packaging and surfeit of cliches undercut the credibility of any higher aspirations. (And frankly it’s a bit soon after “The Hunger Games” for a young heroine to brandish a bow and arrow without that connection looking terribly obvious.) When the closing text solemnly informs us of pervasive wrongs in both the  juvenile incarceration systems, both in Pennsylvania and in the U.S. as a whole, the message feels trivialized by the B-movie thriller we’ve just watched.

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