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What’s this – lovely, sweet, wide-eyed Anne Hathaway saying “fuck”? Getting into a fight? Showing us her breasts? Giving a blowjob? And within the first ten minutes of the film starting too. Someone, it seems, is after an image makeover, and thanks to director Barbara Kopple, she gets one. That might be what Havoc is most remembered for, in fact, because in most other respects this is a rather disappointing “moral panic” movie like the ones from the 1950s where teenagers would race bikes too fast or hang with the wrong crowd, or both. Here the wrong crowd is people of colour and it’s the white people who get into trouble hanging with them. To be fair to Kopple and writers Stephen Gaghan and Jessica Kaplan, the emphasis is not so much on colour as simply being culturally wrongfooted – “some lines aren’t meant to be crossed” proclaims the tagline – the story being about Allison and Emily, two nice white girls (Hathaway and Bijou Phillips, also not averse to flashing the mammaries) with a love for all things gangsta, who wind up in the orbit of some Latino gangbangers after heading into East LA for thrills and, eventually, urban cock. But things quickly go from slumming-it edgy to super scary after Mexican drug boss Hector (Freddy Rodriguez) takes them at their word and offers full initiation into the gang.

Kopple has won two Oscars for her documentaries on social themes (1976’s Harlan County USA, and 1990’s American Dream, both about industrial disputes). And she’s clearly been hired here to deliver shakycam edge and street-real looks, both of which she achieves. Kopple has no hand in the script, which is where the film soils itself, whether it’s in the “we’re teenagers and we’re bored” tell-don’t-show introductions to Allison and Emily or the later pulpit-bashing homeboy speeches by the disgruntled ethnics – we’re human beings, man, and we’ve got a grievance. Whether that’s down to Kaplan’s original draft, written when she was a 16-year-old high schooler and from personal experience, or the later rewrite by Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his work on Traffic, we’ll probably never know. But if the voice of authenticity was ever there in the original, Gaghan’s taken it out. If it wasn’t… then his attempts to put it back in haven’t worked.

Either way, the result is a modern updating of the teenagers-gone-wild film, a genre that only Harmony Korine seems to be able to wring any joy out of these days. But at least it shows that Hathaway is looking to move beyond the wholesome Disney-ish fare of The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. Next up, she’s in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the “gay cowboy” movie. Now there’s a genre that doesn’t come freighted with baggage.

Havoc – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© 2006 Steve Morrissey

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