Any doubt about Shia LeBeouf being able to carry a film on his slim shoulders is put to rest almost immediately after DISTURBIA begins. It’s right after the traffic accident in which his character, Kale, is injured and his father killed. After Kale drags himself from the wreckage, he looks back into what’s left of the vehicle. The audience doesn’t see what Kale sees. It doesn’t have to. LeBoeuf’s face, going from fear, to disbelief, to grief says it all. In that moment, LeBeouf’s character visibly crosses the border from the innocence of childhood into an adult world he is unprepared for with a delicacy that encompasses every complexity and every conflicted emotion that such a sudden transition entails. This kid has the chops.
Jump forward one year and Kale is a troubled kid who responds to his Spanish teacher’s crack about letting his dead father down by dropping him with one blow to the jaw. Instead of jail for this his third such offense since his father’s death, the judge cuts him a break by sentencing him to house arrest for three months. Better than juvie, sure, but as the court officer tells him at home later as he is being locked into the ankle bracelet/ tracking device that will keep tabs on him, people go loopy when house bound, better find something constructive to do. He does, eventually. After gluing Twinkies(r) into fanciful towers, discovering the downside of scarfing down a bowl of peanut butter and chocolate syrup then chugging a Red Bull(r), and watching in disbelief his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) snip the cord from his television as she melts down over his inactivity, he settles down to spying on the upscale suburban neighborhood. As he puts it to his dubious best pal, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), it’s reality television, only better. There are the high-strung moms, the philandering husbands, and the weird guy next door (baby-faced David Morse) who mows his lawn every day and kills bunnies when they get into his garden.
If the premise sounds familiar, it should. Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW is the model here. Writers Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth (RED EYE), and director D. J. Caruso have avoided the trap of trying to remake Hitchcock’s classic. Rather, this is a deft re-imagining of the premise. Instead of the dark underpinnings of male impotence and female power, it’s a smart study of the rough passage from adolescent dependence to adulthood. The female power element is still there, though, but it’s in the person of Ashley (Sarah Roemer), the gorgeous girl next door who plays havoc with Kale’s hormones as she swims languid laps in her backyard pool while sporting the briefest of bikinis. The awkward way in which he pitches woo at her from the confines of his house arrest while trying to maintain the illusion of cool has a universal resonance and adds a genuinely sweet balance to the nefarious doings of the bunny-killing neighbor who may or may not be a serial killer.
When Kale starts getting suspicious, the adults around him chalk it up to cabin fever and the ongoing trauma of his father’s death. Still, he has no trouble enlisting surveillance help from Ronnie, who shows up with an assortment of cameras that any stalker would be proud to have, and, to Kale’s delight and terror, from Ashley, who spots Kale watching her and takes it as a compliment. As Kale’s suspicions grow in a geometric progression, he gets more daring, by proxy, in getting the goods on the bunny killer, even as it draws unwanted attention to himself and his pals.
The action is superbly paced, with Kale’s casual boredom slowly giving way to paranoia that builds the creepiness factor in ever-increasing increments as the kids bumble and bungle into something that’s over their heads. But it’s the family dynamic that is what makes this an outstanding effort. LeBeouf, even when sulky, even when violent, maintains an essential sweetness that is endearing without ever being cloying. He also nails Kale’s kid-ness, the antsy in between state of being 17 when everything happens both too quickly and much too slowly. Counterbalancing, Moss plays strong, but breaking under the weight of grief at her loss and anguish over not being able to heal her son. When, after he has another run-in with the law, she tells Kale that he is breaking her heart, you can not only hear hers crack, but also his, and if you listen closely, your own as well. For necessary comic relief, Yu as the wisecracking sidekick with the gusto, but not the grace when it comes to working undercover, has a sly way of stealing scenes.
DISTURBIA is a thoroughly entertaining thriller done with a refined elegance. As interested in character as it is in keeping its audience on the edge of its seat, it delivers a final 20 minutes that not only terrifies, but also engages on a gut level. It made the preview audience with whom I watched it shriek and cheer, but better, it makes Shia LeBoeuf a bankable star.