There is a monetary zone of geography which we’re not allowed to pass.
I can’t help wondering what Havoc might have been if Jessica Kaplan had the means to make it herself in the 90s like today’s aspiring filmmakers can thanks to affordable technology. She was seventeen when she sold her script “The Powers That Be” based on what she experienced growing up in West Los Angeles. It appears she was more or less the role Matt O’Leary plays (Eric)—an observer trying to understand why these rich white kids are so dead-set on appropriating gang culture despite having no idea what it really entails outside rap music and Hollywood. She wrote her treatment, got paid, and watched it collect dust until Oscar-winner Stephen Gaghan swooped in for a rewrite, assumedly stripping whatever truth was in that original script away.
Kaplan tragically died in a plane crash just before shooting began with two-time Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple at the helm (this is her first and only fictional feature). There was hope then that she could lend an authenticity to the project coming from a doc background, but the odds were stacked against her early on thanks to her cast. I understand that the plot surrounds affluent suburbanite teens pretending to be “hard” in their faux Palisade gangs, but none of these kids can believably pull that off besides Channing Tatum without earning unintentional laughter. Considering he gets five total minutes of screen time, however, the onus falls on Mike Vogel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bijou Phillips (by far the best of the bunch), and Disney princess Anne Hathaway.
That last name is key because Havoc will always be known as the film where she went topless. That’s a shame for her talent and the film since it was never given the chance to be more. Some of that blame must fall upon Gaghan and Kopple, though, since the end result doesn’t deserve higher praise. Looking back on it ten years later only shows how misguided it was from Freddy Rodríguez being asked to lean heavily onto an affected gangbanger cadence to a subplot wherein a white woman “falsifies” a rape claim out of entitlement and fear. The former’s cartoonish effect amplifies how artificial everything seems with actors far-removed from the experience they’re portraying with only stereotype to cull from. And the latter is handled unforgivably bad.
Why? Because while the victim did consent to sex, she didn’t consent to what happens. The issue is therefore more complex than declaring, “It wasn’t rape.” The person saying it wasn’t rape wasn’t even in the room and therefore doesn’t know what occurred after she left. But this is never properly addressed. When the witness lets the cat out of the bag, the victim comically goes through the motions of suicide (because suicide is so funny) before resigning herself to the fact that she’s to blame in this scenario. Maybe the filmmakers were trying to infuse satire into the bored rich kids trope, but it feels like they’re making light of heavy topics that need a delicate hand. “Play with fire and get burned” sentiments are grossly reductive.
It’s too bad because the start does seem to earn its laughter. Watching Toby (Vogel) and Sam (Gordon-Levitt) posture to Eric’s camera in earshot of the other “gang” on the beach they’re about to fight is hilarious. Allison’s (Hathaway) ambivalence is meant to detract sympathy and Emily’s (Phillips) perpetual grin simply shows how attention starved these latchkey kids are. By forcing us to watch them fumble around their words to describe why they act like racist fools through Eric’s camera, we’re able to legitimately believe they’re desperate for a wake-up call. So we revel in the fact that Toby’s great idea of scoring drugs downtown leaves him pissing his pants at the barrel of Hector’s (Rodríguez) gun. Sadly the inevitable fallout is postponed for overwrought romance.
Allison got a taste of the “real world” that night and became addicted. She goes back to find Hector for the thrill despite having no clue who he is or what real gangs are. A few hours in jail leaving her with a smile because of how “cool” it was also shows how she doesn’t know the first thing about consequences. You can’t get more sophomoric if you tried and the attempts to spin some psychological study upon what she’s doing via Eric’s camera don’t help matters. Because here’s the thing: we want her to get hurt. The way she and her friends are presented makes them the bad guys. This isn’t “The O.C.” with a give and take. These are spoiled brats in need of an education.
But the film constantly asks us to pity them as though they don’t know better. They should. Their elitist privilege is no excuse for how they reduce cultures into an adoptable aesthetic or walk into situations they cannot fathom. If the boys want to play gangster with guns they don’t know how to use and adrenaline that will not put them over the edge as far as what will need to be done when confronted by someone who does, let them. They treat what’s happening as though it’s a game and they consistently ignore lessons learned to willfully place themselves even deeper than before. For Kopple to therefore let it all happen without exposing the stakes sooner is naïve and ending the story where she does a copout.
What of the emotional damage? What of the reasons they’re doing what they’re doing? Until the violent sex begins (with an atmosphere that almost asks us to condone what happens as a cultural commonality because they stop) it’s all about having a good time. It’s the type of reckless, sanitized storytelling that makes you think the studio took control of the final cut before transforming its harrowing drama into teen romp. We don’t believe anyone is ever scared because they keep coming back for more. If one of these kids ended up getting shot they’d probably come back to life and try again. It’s a glossy after-school special so interested in appealing to kids that it forgets its message. My main takeaway: white people are the worst.