Judge Dennis Prince wants to know if you're tough enough to read this review, or if you're too afraid to go where 49 boys have gone to straighten out their lives. Well? Do you need yer Mama, cadet?
Are these kids ready to be all they can be?
Forget all those contrived "reality shows" that purport to go inside the hearts, minds, and souls of real people to see how much the human spirit can endure and how far a person will go to achieve a goal. Baloney! If you're looking for a slice of thought-provoking and brow-furrowing reality, here's a film by documentarian Chuck Braverman that follows 49 at-risk teen boys on their harrowing journey to rescue themselves from a downward spiral of drugs, drinking, and disrespect. In High School Boot Camp, Braverman and his crew captures the sights, sounds, sneers, and even smiles of the 6th Class of cadets of Eagle Academy. This powerful and unflinching film will hit you right between the eyes with its honest approach, and might even surprise you as you discover the deeper dimension that has caused these young boys to find themselves on the brink of social despair.
While these kids don't appear to be as cocky and condescending as the juvenile snots who were force-fed a slice of reality at Rahway Prison (seen in 1978's exceptional Scared Straight!), these kids are, nevertheless, on the path to trouble. During interviews with the kids and their parents prior to the commencement of the Eagle Academy program, we learn that this is a volunteer program in which the youths have recognized their problems (individually or via counseling) and have expressed the desire to get themselves straightened out. From day one of the 5-month program, these troubled teens realize they're in for more than they could have imagined. After the bus pulls into the main grounds of Eagle Academy, the entrance lined with stone-faced academy D.I.s (drill instructors), the camp superintendent boards the coach and gives the youngsters their first lesson in Eagle Academy life: "Whenever you speak, the first word and the last word I want to hear from you is 'Sir!' Do you understand?!" When the whistle blows, the boys are literally chased off the bus with as many as three or more D.I.s shouting in each of the youths faces at any one time. Jolted into an unexpected reality, the boys are whisked into a barracks where their hair is shaved off, they're harangued into their academy fatigues, and they're verbally assaulted as they're taught how to make a regulation academy bunk. These kids never saw it coming.
As they program continues, we quickly learn which cadets will step up to the challenge set before them and which ones will resist or recoil. At this point, we learn that the D.I.s' shouting method is gradually modified into a parenting or big-brother role, seeking to build camaraderie with the youths in an attempt to help them recognize the benefits the academy can bestow upon them. Most importantly, the D.I.s seek to build a sense of confidence and self-worth into each of the boys, citing that as the key ingredient to help them make good choices as they journey into adulthood.
If you're expecting a lot of foul-mouthed yapping and caustic confrontations between cadet and D.I., you won't find that sort of shock value here. What you will find, and what will be most shocking (especially to those of you with children of your own), is the revelation of how the parents and family situations have played a role in developing the rebellious and self-destructive attitudes that afflict each of the boys. We're given an opportunity to listen in on the special counseling sessions where parents and families are taught that their home life—not just the boys enrolled in the academy program—must change if these cadets are to succeed upon graduation. Some parents are simply clueless about parenting; others are in denial that their behavior has been a major contributing factor to the current situation. Gradually, though, parents and cadets learn new ways to behave and interact, and the personal growth on display is actually quite heartwarming. Eagle Academy is no picnic, that's for sure; and it makes for an enlightening viewing experience to anyone who parents or otherwise is involved in the raising of teenagers.
The film, shot direct-to-video using a hand-held rig plus some tripod shots, is never a pristine presentation; it doesn't need to be. Rather, the often jerky camera work, the sometimes clumsy tripod setups, and the often-shifting brightness and contrast make for a visceral presentation. On this new disc from New Video (under the Docurama imprint), expect frequent graininess, occasional overexposure, and shifting levels of detail. It never becomes unwatchable and it actually adds an engaging and realistic texture to the presentation (because it is real). The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and it's more than adequate. (I frequently reached for my remote as the D.I.s yelling reached fevered pitches.) There are plenty of extras on hand, too, beginning with an unexpected audio commentary that's better than you might expect. Filmmaker Chuck Braverman, joined by his sound technician/wife Marilyn Lennon-Braverman and his score composer/brother Max Braverman, deliver a truly heartfelt and emotional account of the filming of High School Boot Camp. Especially poignant are their comments about and recollections of the various cadets; they became emotionally attached to many of them during the shoot. There is also some deleted interview footage that was edited from the final film, as well as "where are they now" interviews. A still gallery and filmmaker biographies round out the extras.
High School Boot Camp won the Director's Guild of America award for Best Documentary Feature in 2001, and rightly so. Although it will likely jar you a bit when the D.I.'s yelling starts, the amount of honest feeling and physical and emotional maturation of the cadets is captured perfectly in this low-budget, high-impact documentary. This one is definitely worth a look.
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