The long, involved, and melodramatic story behind Havoc is infinitely more compelling than the film itself, which makes the absence of special features on its DVD all the more frustrating. The project began life as a screenplay called The Powers That Be in 1995. The screenwriter? A 16-year-old high school student named Jessica Kaplan. The script attracted the attention of New Line and Michael Stipe's Single Cell production company, which signed on to produce. Then the project went into turnaround for a veritable eternity before attracting the attention of Mandy Moore and Kate Bosworth, both of whom flirted with playing the lead.
Anne Hathaway eventually signed on as star, by which point Kaplan's original screenplay had been completely re-written by Stephen Gaghan, who previously explored this seamy class-conscious, interracial, drug-fueled territory in the Erika Christensen portions of his Oscar-winning script for Traffic. Gaghan similarly drew on his own experiences battling drug addiction for a sequence in which Hathaway's slumming rich girl ends up in jail.
In theory, at least, the Gaghan/Kaplan pairing should have solved many of the problems common to movies about teenagers. Adults seldom write truthful movies about teenagers, because they're far too removed from the operatic emotions and quicksilver shifts in identity endemic to teen life to document them convincingly. Teenagers, by contrast, seldom write truthful movies about their lives and the lives of their friends because they're goddamned teenagers and lack the experience and skills to write compelling films. Consequently, whenever a film or book offers a true and eloquent exploration of the teenaged psyche, the result is both rare and borderline miraculous, whether it's Catcher In The Rye, Rebel Without A Cause, Mean Creek or My Summer Of Love.
So the pairing of adult and teenaged sensibilities should ostensibly bring out the best in both. Kaplan's contributions should have given the film verisimilitude and authenticity while old pro Gaghan should have given Kaplan's raw material structure, shape, and professionalism. The same goes for Thirteen, which similarly paired a teenager with a street-level understanding of her milieu (double-threat Nikki Reed, an equally awful actress and screenwriter) with old-timer Catherine Hardwicke. So why do these films feel less like raw sociological exposes than lurid B-movies with pretensions to social commentary?
The problem, I suspect, is that many filmmakers get their ideas about teens (and especially teen sex) from the media and the media inevitably tilts towards alarmist sensationalism. A story about how kids today think waiting for a secure, monogamous relationship before having safe, sober sex is totally tubular and radically X-treme isn't liable to appear anywhere outside Christian publications. But a piece about how 13-year-old girls are all about giving hobos hand jobs in truck stops is liable to get a lot more play in the media.
I know that if I was a 16-year-old who'd seen Kids, Havoc, Bully, Alpha Dog, Wassup Rockers and Thirteen, I'd probably feel like the whole teenaged world was one giant omni-sexual drugged-up orgy I hadn't been invited to.
Yes, Havoc belongs unapologetically to a strange subgenre of youth-gone-wild exploitation movies dedicated to the proposition that the kids most assuredly aren't alright. In a rather dramatic bid to de-Disneyfy her image, Hathaway here plays a rich, bored teenager dedicated to leading a life wholly devoid of meaning and substance. By day, she ditches class. By night, she gets wasted, snorts blow in fancy restaurants, smokes more weed than Method and Redman combined, and fucks her clueless cracker boyfriend.
In search of cheap thrills one night, Hathaway and her party posse head to a crime-ridden Hispanic neighborhood to score drugs. When a drug deal goes south, Hathaway's boyfriend is humiliated and emasculated by roughneck cholo Freddy Rodriguez. The following night Hathaway and her friends head back to the barrio, where she begins an awkward flirtation with Rodriguez, who is understandably skeptical of the rich white girl with a jones for danger.
Hathaway's adventures hanging with the homeboys temporarily fills the emptiness at the core of her being–a deep, dark void where a soul should be. Then one night, Hathaway and bestest pal Bijou Phillips decide to raise the stakes and join Rodriguez's gang. Rodriguez reluctantly lays out the price of joining the gang: they're to roll a die, then fuck however many gangstas their score adds up to. Being an old-fashioned romantic who prefers her gangland sex initiation one-on-one, Hathaway fortunately rolls a one. Phillips rolls a three. Though initially game and eager to please, Phillips leaves in horror once she realizes exactly what she's gotten into.
This sets off an increasingly hysterical chain of events as the white boys from Phillips and Hathaway's school travel down to the barrio to avenge what they consider to a horrifying threat to Phillips' non-existent honor.
Hathaway's alpha-female is both blessed and cursed to be much smarter and more self-aware than her friends, with the exception of a youthful voyeur/documentarian who serves an audience surrogate. Unlike her peers Hathaway clearly understands that her fascination with urban culture is just a transitional phase and that after an appropriate period of decadence, she'll go to college, join a sorority, marry an investment banker type, maybe design a line of handbags, and think about her wild gangsta would-be suitor only when having mechanical sex with the hubby. Hathaway gives it her all, but an air of wholesomeness clings to her no matter how low her character sinks.
Havoc is partially a victim of bad timing. If it had come out in 1996, before the wave of youth-gone-wild movies, its central revelation that rich white kids are fascinated with black and Hispanic street culture might have seemed fresh and new. In 2007, it's hard to respond to it with anything beyond a vexed "Well, duh". Is anyone really shocked that Johnny Whitebread Teenager is more likely to look up to Snoop Dogg than, say, John Mayer these days?
When Kaplan wrote The Powers That Be, she couldn't have imagined she'd be dead from a plane crash at 24 before it was ever released or that her film would go direct-to-DVD despite being directed by a two-time Oscar winner (famed documentarian Barbara Kopple) and re-written by another Oscar-winner. She similarly couldn't have envisioned that her movie would rise to prominence largely as that one movie that girl from The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada totally got nekkid in before rocketing to the Hollywood A-list. Which is both fair and unfair: for all its good intentions, Havoc doesn't really offer much beyond Hathaway nudity. True, it won Hathaway Best Actress at the sketchy-sounding 2006 DVD Exclusive Awards, a victory that has to rival her 2001 team win (for the truly insane retro-bible-thumper The Other Side Of Heaven) in the even sketchier-sounding Character and Morality in Entertainment Awards as ostensible triumphs that are actually fairly embarrassing. I think it's safe to say the Character and Morality in Entertainment folk (all of whom I imagine look and act like Ned Flanders) would probably take back her award if they'd seen her DVD Exclusive Award-winning role here.
Like Kopple and Gaghan's best work, Havoc wants to say something profound and trenchant about the world we live in, which makes its utter failure to do so a lot more forgivable.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure