Movie Review: “The Drowning” quietly tugs you under

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“No good deed goes unpunished,” the old joke goes. And that certainly crosses the mind of Dr. Tom Seymour during the course of his interactions with young Ian.

Not when he’s pulling him out of the river where Tom (Josh Charles) and his wife Lauren (Julia Stiles) have just watched the young man (Avan Jogia) plunge in with the intention of drowning himself. But later, Tom starts to question Ian’s motives and everything else about “The Drowning.”

Pat Barker’s novel “Border Crossing” sets the table for director Bette Gordon’s psychological thriller, a lot of tension, mysterious back-stories, the occasional melodramatic touch, and just enough silky smooth menace. It lacks the fireworks or stunning revelations of an A-picture in this genre. But it works as a nice showcase for a cast that’s largely been relegated to small supporting roles these days.

Tom is a criminal psychologist, and it’s only when he visits the man he saved in the hospital that he realizes he didn’t know him as “Ian.” That’s a new name, issued by the court. Tom knew him and studied him as “Danny,” an 11 year old accused of murder a dozen years ago. Tom sent him away.

Back then, the kid was “exceptional and damaged,” something even his juvenile incarceration teachers noted — smart, an aspiring writer. And while New London’s Dr. Seymour may raise an eyebrow at the coincidence of it all , his lingering feelings of guilt — “Maybe I got it wrong” —  keep him from connecting the dots.

The kid’s probation officer (Tracie Thoms) is SURE he’s better, and her long working relationship with Tom lets her saddle him to Danny — again — to keep him from being thrown into prison. Danny turns the compassion screws himself. He’s very pretty and needy and persuasive.

“You’re the only person I can talk to about what happened…Can you AT LEAST help me get my life back on track?”

And that professional relationship means Tom doesn’t tell Lauren that the handsome charmer who keeps popping up where she is might be a murderous menace.

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That’s one of a couple of “Yeah, right” moments in the script. Danny’s “life back on track” plea has an edge to it, a suggested threat. What did Tom do to put him behind bars? Will  Tom’s cop colleague (John C. McGinley) reveal some shortcut they took, some way they conspired to punish a kid who claims “I didn’t DO it?”

Meanwhile, Tom’s deteriorating relationship with his hip artist wife drifts from planning a pregnancy to something more damaged and tenuous. Tom’s character starts to show behind his buttoned-down persona.

Gordon (“Handsome Harry”) doesn’t hide her or her character’s cards well enough for all the possibilities to present themselves, and be verfiied or eliminated. Charles is stolidly in character throughout, always suggesting something Tom must be hiding, the under-used Stiles has too little to play. But Jogia (“Twisted” and TV’s “Victorious,” believe-it-or-not) has layer of charm, sex appeal and menace in this role.

The payoff isn’t the head-snapping shock that you’d hope, and the PG-13 nature of the treatment robs the picture of the violence and heat that might have lifted it. But “The Drowning” manages to chill and surprise just often enough to keep its head above water.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with PG-13 level violence and sexual situations

Cast: Josh Charles, Julia Stiles, Avan Jogia, Tracie Thoms, John C. McGinley

Credits:Directed by Bette Gordon, script by Stephen Molton, based on a Pat Barker novel. An Eagle Films release.

Running time: 1:35

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