Reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s been a shooting at the school.

Those might be the worst words a parent can hear. Words too many parents have heard in recent years.

Amy Carr (Naomi Watts) hears them while she’s out on a jog through the forest. She’s got her own set of troubles she’s trying to sort through, and a morning autumnal run seems like the kind of thing she needs to clear her head—if the damn phone would stop buzzing, beeping, and ringing with updates on car repairs, parents boarding airplanes, PTA meetings, and the like. Then comes the alert: There’s been a shooting at the school. Amy’s blood runs cold.

It’s a nice twist that this moment of sheer anxiety and panic should occur in such a picturesque setting. Towering trees with leaves changing from deep green to fire red; a large, blue lake with mist hanging over it; dewy grass that has yet to brown and die—it’s practically Edenic. And somewhere beyond all of this glory, a mentally disturbed person stalks the halls of a high school with an assault rifle. Who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s injured, who’s safe, who’s in danger, a million questions race through Amy’s mind as she tries to contact anyone she can for help, for information, for a ride, for anything. Naturally, she panics and starts running where she shouldn’t and not paying attention to where she runs.

The first 40 minutes or so of Lakewood are gripping. Chris Sparling’s screenplay sets up the obstacles so convincingly you barely register the pieces moving across the board. Isolated and alone, Watts does an excellent job conveying panic, anxiety, and an urgency to do something in a helpless situation. Director Phillip Noyce keeps things visually lively—if somewhat spastic—with everything falling together so well it feels like a betrayal when the movie suddenly shifts gears into a hero’s fantasy. Why a 911 dispatcher, an auto mechanic, and a coworker would step in and accommodate Amy’s request, particularly the illegal ones, is suspect as best.

Why? Because the filmmakers could not resist the temptation of imagination would be my guess. Amy, like any parent in this situation, is completely and totally helpless. Why not invest her with agency so any parent watching Lakewood might also feel empowered when this moment befalls them?

Because it’s false. The only thing a parent can do after a shooter enters the school is sit in some community center or nearby gymnasium and wait for the list to be posted. For SWAT to unload their kid from an armored vehicle. For the police to take them aside and deliver horrible news. I’m sure the filmmakers felt that making Amy brave and fearless would give their movie resonance. But Lakewood would’ve resonated a hell of a lot more if brave and fearless Amy had to spend the third act waiting in a large room with a hundred other parents, not knowing how the day would end. That’s what my parents did. And that’s what my friend’s parents did.

Noyce shot Lakewood in Ontario. It’s gorgeous, and I want to visit. But Sparling’s script isn’t set in Canada: There are references to Marion County, and the phone numbers start with area code 716. That’s in Florida, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t a Lakewood in Marion County, Florida. I wonder if Sparling picked the name “Lakewood” because it sounds like a generic suburban city. I also wonder if he picked it because Lakewood is the city next door to Littleton, Colorado, where the Columbine High School shooting took place. That’s the school I ran from 22 years ago. Fourteen of my classmates and one teacher died that day. And here I am, sitting in Lakewood, Colorado, reviewing a movie about a school shooting. Lakewood is far from the first school shooter movies I’ve reviewed. I’m sure it won’t be the last.

One last thing, Lakewood ends with a tacked-on message from one of the characters about the importance of “talking about it.” What exactly are we talking about? There was plenty of talk after Columbine—so much that every point, every proposition got so horribly twisted and blown out of proportion, we walked away further from where we started. All that came back after Virginia Tech, and then Sandyhook, and there was a hell of a lot of talk after Parkland. There are books and movies and TV specials and songs and talk talk talk talk talk. And, yet, the shooters keep coming.

I know people want to feel like they can do something. Like they have some control over a problem so hopelessly out of their hands. But can we settle on a solution that doesn’t feel quite so empty?

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Lakewood (2021)
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Chris Sparling
Produced by David Boies, Andrew Corkin, Alex Lalonde, Chris Parker, Zack Schiller, Dylan Sellers, Chris Sparling, Naomi Watts
Starring: Naomi Watts
Distributor TBA, Not rated, Running time 84 minutes, Release date TBA.