In ‘the 90s’, twelve-year-old Jacob (Luke Prael) is proving difficult for his loving by exhausted Mom (Samantha Mathis) and wary stepfather (David Aaron Baker). He has extreme night terrors, gets beaten up at school for his girliness, and is becoming obsessed with his late grandmother, a Jewish woman who filed her teeth down during WWII for purposes that become clear during serial-like flashbacks. There are hints of a haunting, but Jacob may have non-supernatural reasons for dressing up in grandma’s bloodstained ball gown and elbow-length gloves and dancing in the dark. This prologue, which is full of hints and ambiguities, ends with Jacob being delivered to an upstate New York boarding school for troubled kids … realising pretty soon that the soft-spoken, Bible-thumping, cane-hidden-up-the-sleeve principal and only teacher Dr Sherman (Will Patton) and his imposing wife (Tammy Blanchard) are running a Dickensian racket to take care of kids whose parents want them out of the way, perhaps for longer than a semester.
Also in residence are smart, scary girl Christine (Sterling Jens), who goes out of her way to get punished … burn victim Phil (Nadia Alexander, playing a boy – contrasting with the feminine male lead) … Tourettes’ sufferer Frederic (Christopher Dylan White) … extremely naïve twins Lenny and Calvin (Kobi and Kadin George) … and childish lump Elwood (Nicholas J. Olivieri), who eats scrambled eggs by shoving them up his nose. Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans) deploys a lot of familiar old dark house conventions, including strange noises at night and the supposed caring institution with an electric fence, plus a basement that turns out to be full of nasty secrets, sadistic authority figures with hidden agendas, and a protagonist who is presented with a sinister choice between siding with recalcitrant rebel Christine and making an escape or assuming Judas Goat leadership of the other misfits and keeping them in line until their allotted time is up. And, throughout, there are spectres from the past which draw Jacob into Tenant-like transvestism.
Patton, always an underrated character actor, is splendid as the practical psychopath – who genuinely takes a liking to Jacob, and wants to get him on side – while the young cast members are all impressive as troubled kids whose issues are refreshingly not spelled out. At an hour and fifty minutes, it’s leisurely for a thriller – the horrors don’t escalate until quite late in the day – but this gives the odd characters breathing room to develop. Prael, Jerins and Alexander in particular get meaty, unconventional child roles – none of these unruly kids would have a spot in The Goonies, and Yakin invests them all with unusual quirks and compulsions.