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Film review: 'Crawl'

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Thus far it's been a relatively disappointing summer for mainstream movies, as one massive, big-budget studio tentpole after another has been a letdown. Thankfully along comes the refreshingly small-scale "Crawl." A lean, mean genre picture about an estranged father and daughter repairing their fraught relationship while facing off against a pack of hungry alligators, the film delivers exactly what it promises: fast, action-packed, white-knuckle thrills, and plenty of scenes featuring people getting chomped on by toothy reptiles.

The ruthlessly efficient thriller comes from French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, the director of brutal little horror flicks like "High Tension" and the buoyantly trashy "Piranha 3D." The latter movie proves he has experience with water-based creature features, and working from a script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, Aja turns this film into a suspense-filled joy.

"Crawl" features a brilliantly simple B-movie premise: Florida college student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) returns to her former family home at the request of her sister to check on her divorced father, Dave (Barry Pepper), who's not answering calls as a Category 5 hurricane threatens to make landfall. The trip turns into a rescue mission when she finds him trapped in the house's crawlspace with a broken leg and a rather nasty looking bite mark from a rogue alligator that found its way indoors. Things look dire, but go from bad to worse as more of the gator's buddies descend on their home, while the flood waters rise with dismaying speed.

Writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen find no shortage of ways to put their characters in increasing jeopardy, allowing Haley and Dave's plans of escape to crumble as one terrible thing goes wrong after another. The stakes are high but gratifyingly simple: don't drown, escape the house, and avoid getting eaten.

The crawlspace setting presents its own challenges, with a labyrinth of pipes and architectural obstacles to navigate. But there are also a few narrow spaces the alligators can't get to, providing the pair bits of temporary sanctuary. The murky waters contain unseen threats waiting to come bursting to the surface, all snapping jaws and gnashing teeth.

A few ill-fated supporting characters pop up occasionally, allowing plenty of opportunity for the giant reptiles turn the water blood red. There's also an adorable dog, and spoiler alert for those who need to know the fate of the pup before they slap down money for a ticket: the adorable pooch makes it out just fine.

This is a film with little on its mind besides pure excitement, and you could probably read some minor commentary about the climate and global warming's effect on severe weather events that force animals to find new hunting grounds. But that's not really the focus here.

Scodelario is a magnetic presence on screen, and she carries the film. At its heart the film is about the relationship between a father and daughter; in between fighting for their lives, the pair sort through their uneasy history together. Haley's a star member of her collegiate swim team, and Dave coached her as a young girl, ingraining in her a fierce competitiveness to be the "apex predator" in competition. That pressure may have put some strain on their relationship, but it now gives her the skills she needs to go up against those reptilian horrors.

The tension in that father-daughter relationship provides just a hint of fleshy emotional tenderness for the film to sink its teeth into. Aja's past films have had a certain nasty streak, but here the central relationship keeps him from getting too mean-spirited, and focused on making us care whether these two will make it out alive.

The Rasmussens' script makes sure their characters' actions are just smart enough. They may take some desperate risks, but always to increase whatever slim chance they have of survival. It's the kind of film that makes you admire the characters resourcefulness and ability to cope under that kind of stress. I'm fairly certain I'd be dead within five minutes, and I know damn well I'm too squeamish to fashion myself an effective tourniquet.

The gator effects are impressive throughout. Mostly digital creations, the beasts have a weight to them that makes them feel like a real threat. And the film has plenty of atmosphere thanks to Alan Gilmore's grimy production design and Maxime Alexandre's stormy gray cinematography.

"Crawl" sets itself apart from most summer blockbusters competing for your dollars at the box office with its admittedly fairly modest B-movie ambitions. Running a fleet 87 minutes, "Crawl" maintains its intensity without letting up, and there's a pleasure in its simple story done exceedingly well. It's immensely satisfying entertainment, and for those up for a bit of bloody gator action, it should provide the thrills you're hungering for.