Not too many straight-to-DVD titles come with the pedigree of "Havoc," which looks at the gangsta-fashion-addicted culture of rich, bored Los Angeles teenagers through the eyes of a smart but alienated high schooler. The new feature film, available from New Line Home Entertainment in both an R-rated and an unrated version, was not just directed by two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, U.S.A." and "American Dream") but written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic").
What's more, it's got a cast -- including Anne Hathaway, Bijou Phillips and Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- that you might actually have heard of. Assuming, that is, you're of an age where the Teen People headline "Chad and Sophia to Split" means something.
Add to this the fact that the film's original script, a la "Thirteen," was written by a then-16-year-old wunderkind named Jessica Kaplan, who died in a plane crash two years ago at the age of 24. Top that tidbit with the fact that Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries") radically ditches her goody-goody image (along with her clothes) in her portrayal of a spoiled, sexually active, drug-taking La La Land brat who gets mixed up with the Latino leader of a gang of East L.A. crack dealers (Freddy Rodriguez), and you've got at least a few reasons to be curious about this disc.
The bad news? That's pretty much all "Havoc" is: a curiosity.
Sure, it's sharply written. Kaplan -- or is it Gaghan? -- has an ear for the way that white adolescent children of West Coast privilege talk, adopting -- and just as easily discarding -- the patois of the street like a pair of momentarily stylish shoes. As a story, "Havoc" nevertheless doesn't really go anywhere. Allison's (Hathaway) unlikely friendship with Hector (Rodriquez), a handsome gang-banger whose bad-boy energy provides an unfamiliar high for the thrill-seeking teenager, is treated with a surprising lack of condescension and is the best thing about the film. In the end, though, the movie seems to retreat from the prickly volatility of their relationship, which teeters between cautious respect and violent eroticism, to a platitudinous comfort zone where people stick to their own kind.
"Some lines are not meant to be crossed," the movie's tagline reads. In the end, everybody's back where he or she belongs (well, almost everybody -- a "blackout" scene near the end leaves a couple of characters' fates ambiguous). Nobody's learned anything, except to stay away from people who aren't like you.
On the plus side is Kopple's direction. Known for such acclaimed documentaries as "Wild Man Blues," about the life and loves of Woody Allen, the filmmaker brings a fly-on-the-wall sensibility to the proceedings, while adding enough slick visual verve -- in a style reminiscent of Lauren Greenfield's photojournalism about contemporary American teenagers -- to keep the film out of grainy, shaky handheld-camera territory. Eric, the film's teenage video documentarian, played by Matt O'Leary, serves both as a kind of stand-in for Kopple herself, in the way that he records, without flinching, the often appalling behavior of his peers, and as the film's moral center. Like Kopple, he pretends to remain aloof from the debauchery, while passing a kind of tacit judgment.
Fittingly, perhaps, for a narrative this raw but ultimately empty -- a narrative whose antecedents seem to be not just such kids-gone-wild tales as "Thirteen" but Larry Clark's "Kids" -- there are no DVD extras. Hey, a director's commentary would have been nice (though inconsistent, I suppose with the film's tone of scrupulous, whatever detachment).