For Morgan J. Freeman (a young writer-director, not the well-known actor), comic timing couldn't get any worse -- or better. That's because one of the unhappy teenagers in Freeman's second feature, Desert Blue, is a melancholy girl dressed in moody black who likes to detonate homemade bombs. The Columbine High School massacre and its deadly shooters/bombers remain fresh in the public memory, and such imagery is bound to disturb many viewers. On the other hand, the powerful light this talented 27-year-old filmmaker sheds on the adolescent psyche may compensate for the discomfort. While social scientists and other students of alienation try, without much success, to analyze the savage teen factionalism (among other things) that drove two kids over the edge at Columbine, tuned-in moviemakers like Freeman seem to gain easier access to the secret traumas of adolescence.
The setting of Desert Blue is fictional Baxter, California, population 87, a forgotten flyspeck of a town far out in the Mojave Desert. The only local "attraction" is a giant ice cream cone plunked down on the sand. There's nothing for kids in Baxter to do but play the video game in the diner, kick up dust with their dune buggies, and brood, half-drunk around a bonfire, about cruel fate. They're a listless and vaguely fatalistic bunch, these children of desolation. "I don't care," one of them says amid a conversation about funeral arrangements. "Bury me or burn me -- it doesn't matter."
But even in this broken-down Podunk (it's the way a lot of real-life kids see their hometowns) there's room for a dream or two and for some mordant comedy. Blue (Brendan Sexton III) wants to fulfill his late father's fantasy of revivifying poor Baxter with an artificial desert lake and beach, complete with canoes and water slide. Pete (Casey Affleck) hopes to repeat his win in the local desert-vehicle race. Pudgy Cale (Ethan Suplee) wants to be the village deputy. Even the bombmaker Ely (Christina Ricci) can put a benign spin on her dangerous hobby. The furious rebel in her brags that she's "got the shit to blow up this whole fuckin' town." The immature teenager claims: "It's sort of like a sport -- like skeet shooting." If she were in the Olympics, she says, "I'd bring home the Gold." Ely hasn't hurt anyone yet, but she might. Little matter that she's the sheriff's daughter.
Unless you've been living on another, far friendlier planet, this kind of nihilistic bravado is nothing new. Neither is the pain underlying it. Freeman got his start in 1996 as second assistant director on Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, a harrowing look at preteen anxiety in the suburbs. His own first feature was Hurricane Streets (Jamin O'Brien, Alliance Cinema board member, worked with Morgan as assistant director on that film and on Blue). Hurricane featured the boyish, James Dean-esque Sexton as a small-time criminal. "It's about a kid who's good at heart," Freeman told a magazine interviewer, "but the world won't let him be good."
That's the same cri de coeur we hear from the lonely, funny kids in Desert Blue. But until a possible disaster hits their town they probably haven't thought much either way about about goodness or badness. As it happens, a tank truck bound for a mysterious local soft drink plant crashes on the highway, and when the driver unexpectedly dies, a scare goes up. Has Baxter been fatally contaminated by toxins? Is everyone done for?
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True to form -- the form of desert-town atomic paranoia movies of the 1950s -- the FBI shows up in a pair of ominous black Humvees. At the same time, a Los Angeles teenager named Skye (Kate Hudson) and her corny college professor father (John Heard) get stranded in Baxter when the authorities seal the place off. Skye's a budding sitcom actress with plenty of vanities and pretensions, but as the puzzle of the alleged toxic spill deepens, she eventually joins Blue's rustic teen posse and falls for him. They sit and talk and worry about the future in the moonlight, under the aqueduct that rushes water past high-and-dry Baxter to the big city.
Freeman's toxic-spill crisis may be an easy device to get everyone rethinking and reconsidering their lives, but what he does best here is penetrate teenagers' complex codes of loyalty and distrust with dead-on accuracy. The kids bark and snap at each other, and Skye's intrusion raises the occasional hackle, but the sense that these kids are all in this thing together is unmistakable. That they are united as much by sarcasm as by affection is a sign of the '90s. That they must be united is a given: It's a cold world out there in the desert.
Before he's done, Freeman generously liberates his kids. Blue comes to terms with his father's recent death. Skye ditches her cell phone and loosens up. Cale gets his deputy's hat. Everybody gets revenge on the head FBI villain. Ely even donates her bombing skills to fulfill the fondest dream of a friend.
In short, this modest little comedy ends sweetly. But it never loses its sting. Perhaps because irony is now the dominant mode of social interaction, Skye tells Blue when tragedy has been averted: "I was having a fun time dying with you." After Columbine, that's not a very funny line. But in its several startling resonances, it could serve as the slogan for a very uneasy moment in our national life.