Surviving Crooked Lake (2009)
Being a kid ain’t all popsicles and pony rides. It can get pretty hard around those pesky pubescent years. There’re things happening to your body that you just don’t understand. You start thinking you know everything about everything, but nothing about anything. There’re kids of the opposite side starting to look at you like you never been looked at. Times are very confusing when you get to becoming a teenager. It ain’t easy being a kid. It’s all cliché stuff, but it’s true.
And it doesn’t get any easier when tragedy comes to haunt your young days. Nothing makes you feel more out of the norm than having troubles that no one else has. This is the life of Steph, a fourteen year old girl who’s lived nearly half her life with the memory of her father’s tragic death. Her three BFFs fill their newly teen days with the usual girlie girl stuff, boys, peer politics, fashion… But, as it goes, none of them seem overly concerned or even aware of their friend’s pain.
Steph’s troubles bubble to the surface on the eve of the traditional canoe trip that marks the end of summer camp. She has a growing fear of water, the result of watching her father die in a terrible boating accident, and instead of talking it out, she decided to bail the canoe trip. Luckily, or not, her older brother Jonah is there to watch over her, and volunteers to chaperone the girls on their little voyage.
Naturally, the budding curiosity of the friends is piqued by the presence of the older brother. He’s a pretty cool guy to them. He doesn’t condescend to the young teens, but playfully treats them as peers, passing a cigarette around, but then teasingly reminding them of how much they are still little girls. Little or not, Morgan (Morgan McCunn), the boy magnet of the group, harbors more than a puppy love crush. With her sleepy eyed gaze, she soon hooks up with the older Jonah, slipping away to share a secret cuddle. And it’s when they attempt to consummate their bond with a late night kiss that Steph learns the truth of her friend and her brother’s betrayal.
And then… It happens again. In the aftermath of the argument between the girls and Morgan, tragedy cuts through Steph’s life, once again.
There are some hard knock life stuff to Crooked Lake, and the girls all step up to deliver some heavy performances. Candice Mausner flaunts a sharp wit as the tomboyish Candice (the girls and their characters share names), and Alysha Aubin puts on her best future Mean Girl attitude. Morgan McCunn delivers as the naive coquette, who is rushing to grow up while still grasping onto to her childhood. But it’s Stephannie Richardson who holds down the key performance as the girl who tries to smile through her pain. In the quiet moments she demurs with her head cocked downward, but when she is provoked, she snaps and explodes, releasing the bottled rage.
Crooked Lake draws some obvious comparisons to an earlier film Mean Creek, in which a group of young kids head out on a canoe trip that turns tragic. The similarities, however, end there. Mean Creek is arguably a more edgy film. It tells the story of children dealing issues way beyond their young years, but with the reflexive eye of an adult. Crooked Lake, on the other hand, emulates the popular YA novels, relating the tragic coming of age story to the peer group of the film’s characters.
And this is where I think the film gets tripped up. IMDB tags Surviving Crooked Lake with a PG-13 rating, but the version I saw appeared to be fit for an R, with a few awkwardly forced F-bombs uttered by the girls. This may have been a mistake. With such a strong grrl power message about survival, family and friendship, the filmmakers may have missed out on a very lucrative market – teen girls – by trying to get too edgy for its own good.
There’s also a minimal resemblance to another similarly themed film – Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its long, luxurious looks at sun drenched landscapes and lingering gazes of the young girls at play. Again, all similarities end there. There's a line that Hanging Rock director Peter Weir toes skillfully, between the sensuality of the diffused, sun-drenched landscapes and the sexual hysteria of the young girls in the story. The Crooked Lake filmmakers also try to draw out that same sensuality, but there are times when the lens of the camera lingers a bit too long, nearly stepping over from art to exploitation. The filmmakers may have been aiming for the Art House crowd with this style -- those who would likely have a film like Hanging Rock, or Mean Creek in their queues -- but again, they should've been thinking more about the teen girl audience.
All comparisons aside, Surviving Crooked Lake is a startling coming of age story that delivers some genuine moments of tension and revelations.