[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Cop Car opens today in limited release.]
I love it when movies accurately depict kids at play. These movies can give us an instant flashback to how we goofed around as children, and how our imaginations ran wild as we behaved with reckless abandon. (When I was around seven, a friend and I tried jumping over an open sewer drain. It did not pan out for him.) Recent films like Son of Rambow and to a lesser extent I Declare War, charmingly embrace childhood adolescence, and Cop Car manages to capture that spirit with its two lead boys. But rather than match their adventure with equally fun obstacles, writer-director Jon Watts throws the kids up against a generic dirty-cop story that plays into the absurdity, but drains the joy.
Ten-year-old boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) have “run away” from home (run away in the sense that children get upset with their parents and walk really far away; the boys haven’t even taken backpacks with them), and as they’re going through a field, they come across an abandoned cop car. After cautiously approaching the vehicle, they decided to take off with it. Unbeknownst to the innocent children, the car belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who was out disposing of a body when the boys came across his cruiser. It’s bad to have your cop car stolen, and it’s even worse when that car contains some very incriminating evidence in the trunk. As the sheriff tries to find the vehicle and also cover his tracks, the boys are out having a marvelous joyride on the open roads and fields.
The first half-hour or so of Cop Car is enjoyable as we get to know the kids and understand the particulars of their relationship (Travis is the leader and Harrison is the follower). The slow build also lets the characters feel real as we see them engage in little dares like running to touch the cop car and seeing if any angry police officers pop out. Stealing a cop car is a big action, but we identify with the characters because we understand what they’re doing is from innocence rather than outright stupidity.
But what looked like Watts carefully pacing his opening eventually looks like a stalling tactic as Kretzer putters about trying to find a way to get back his vehicle. Bacon’s clearly having a good time, but his cartoonish character doesn’t match the seriousness of his actions. Two little kids driving around in a cop car is reckless and dangerous, but it’s in the vein of “boys will be boys.” Watts tries to have an Amblin approach where regular kids face real danger, but in Cop Car, the balance is woefully uneven. Like most Amblin imitators, the concept overshadows the characters.
Even at a scant 86 minutes, Cop Car feels lethargic, especially as it relies on tired threats like kids playing with guns. What’s meant to be an escalation begins to overshadow the sense of joy. The kids stop being kids not because they’ve learned a valuable lesson, but because they’re backed into a corner. There’s no more room for fun, and playtime is over far too soon.