Although it’s not uncommon for a child star to adjust to adulthood with a sharp turn toward more “mature” work, Shia LaBeouf’s career has been unique. A taxonomy of child star fall-from-graces would surely be long enough to keep a wikipedia editor busy, but the pure range of LaBeouf’s descent makes it one of the more notable instances in recent memory. Before a pseudo-performance artist with a handful of plagiarism accusations and Gorilla Glue-like adherence to a gutter punk aesthetic, LaBeouf had the makings of Hollywood’s next A-list leading man.
After proving he could make the transition from small screen to silver screen with Disney’s Holes in 2003, Hollywood primed him with bit parts on larger stages, like I Robot, The Greatest Game Ever Played and Constantine, before it was apparent LaBeouf had an undeniable leading-man chemistry that belied his goofy looks and left-of-center mannerisms. Then, in 2007, came his breakthrough.
Though his turn as Sam Witwicky in Michael Bay’s woefully underappreciated 2007 reboot of the Transformers franchise is likely what most will attribute his breakthrough to, a few months prior was LaBeouf’s real tour de force: Disturbia. With Disturbia, LaBeouf did the unspeakable. Almost single handedly, he made a compelling film out of the following elevator pitch: Rear Window for Teens by that guy who made Two for the Money.
Disturbia was a pretty solid hit, enjoying three straight weeks atop the box office (before Spider-Man 3 came to town), but for the past 10 years, after being originally chided by those that consider themselves bastions of good taste (like OV’s own Steve Cuff) as....well, Rear Window for Teens by that guy who made Two for the Money, the film has been neglected enough to be considered underrated, marking it worthy of a look at how well it plays a decade later.
Lore has it Disturbia’s script was originally penned and sold in the 1990s, but wasn’t produced due to Christopher Reeve’s (dreadful) straight remake of Rear Window...until it was taken back off the shelf ten years later as a Shia LaBeouf vehicle. Now, if you’re one of these skeptical hoity toity film snobs that can’t imagine enjoying anything that dares sully the annals of cinema history, you might ask me, “How can this Rear Window rip off possibly be a success?” Great question.
Basically, this film doesn’t try to adhere closely to Rear Window at all outside of a point of influence. Another straight remake would have been annoying and dull. Instead, Disturbia acts as a YA reimagining of Rear Window where Hitchcock’s classic acts as motivation. And, most significant to its success, is how much it fully commits to a sincerity that good YA fiction necessitates. It really believes in its abilities and its characters. That it’s similar to the plot of Rear Window is really the end of its interest in that film as source material.¹ Director D.J. Caruso and company are much more interested in telling their version of this story.²
Kale (LaBeouf) lives in suburban California (if shooting location is any indication), and while on house arrest, as a result of punching his high school teacher (in the wake of his father’s sudden passing), he becomes accustomed to watching his neighbors as a substitute for television. After hearing on the local news that a murderer is at large, Kale has reason to believe one of his neighbors is a prime suspect.
Though the title, setting and plot of Disturbia may suggest a subtext about the deep dark secrets of suburban life, the film isn’t really interested at all in developing that as a theme - which is one of its strengths. First of all, the opening sequence of Blue Velvet did that better than it will probably ever be done. Second, why cover such well-tread ground? Third, and most importantly, Disturbia couldn’t care less about dealing with such larger themes. Not because it lacks ambition, but because the filmmakers are just so invested in its foreground: chemistry and tone.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that, on principal, eschewing themes and subtext for character investment is always the right choice. For instance, this year’s Get Out was athletic enough to concurrently develop and indulge in the best interest of its characters, genre and subtext. But Disturbia is not that movie. The reason why this film’s decision to forgo an indulgence in the subtext it set up (the hidden nefariousness of suburbia) is partially the right choice is because of timing. Disturbia is the perfect spring movie. By mid-April, the seemingly interminable winter has passed, the sun is out until late evening and foliage is in bloom. Moviegoers want light, entertaining fare that celebrates a new, brighter season. This is what Disturbia (or its studio execs) understood. It’s also an attribute that may be easily forgotten or lost when viewed outside of its original context.
With ambitions of being the epitome of a breezy spring film for (nearly) all ages came restrictions for the filmmakers. Particularly, being relegated to PG-13 Thriller status. The PG-13 Thriller is a tough cookie to bake in a way that pleases both mainstream and genre audiences. But the film’s opening passages give us reason to believe it can walk this tightrope; it’s immediately funny, bubbling, charismatic and startling. Outside of LaBeouf, an ability to juggle tone is the core of the film’s success. Figuring out how to make a film of this release, genre and rating without being corny, boring or contrived was Disturbia’s biggest hurdle.
As an example of its aptitude, in an early scene, there’s a 90 second passage where LaBeouf shifts from mocking paparazzi TV to having diarrhea to mourning his father, before cutting to him listening to “Then I Got High,” all without being clumsy. But the film’s not entirely perfect - there’s a particular passage where LaBeouf nearly plagiarizes the climax of When Harry Met Sally - though I would argue that even its missteps are charming.
Part of the film’s tonal gymnastics is also balancing the film’s budding romance - another tenet of the YA recipe. The relationship between Kale and the new girl-next-door Ashley (Sarah Roehmer) is a significant part of the film, and what gives it narrative steam. It’s definitely a little weird that Ashley is so receptive to Kale, considering she’s caught him spying on her at all times of day with his huge binoculars, but the transition from Kale’s voyeuristic interest in Ashley to her confrontation of his spying, and finally to their mutual affection ends up injecting a lot of levity to the film’s atmosphere.
The couple’s relationship grows as they, along with Kale’s affable best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), join together to foil his neighbor’s murderous intents. The device of merging Kale and Ashley for this plotline works as a nice alchemy of character and narrative structure. A lesser film would’ve kept the female love interest as a cheerleader on the sidelines, but Disturbia is smart to give her agency, adding a more interesting group dynamic to the protagonists. That the romance is able to bolster the film at all despite the less-than-wonderful Sarah Roehmer - who seemingly only had an acting career because of her timely resemblance to Mischa Barton - is further testament to LaBeouf’s leading man charisma.
Director D.J. Caruso was also smart to pepper the cast with very capable veteran talent, like Carrie Ann Moss and even a then-unknown Viola Davis, who gifts us with a small, recurring character. Aaron Yoo also makes a sizable donation to the film’s levity in a role that gets my vote as most convincing performance of a near-30-year-old playing a high schooler. (Move over, Rachel McAdams.) But the real casting coup is David Morse, opposite LaBeouf, as the suspicious, possibly murderous neighbor. Until our suspicions are confirmed, Morse is able to walk a thin line that allows the viewer to second guess how evil his character actually is.
As good as most of the surrounding cast is, I don’t want to distract from what LaBeouf does here. He’s the main attraction. He turned a fluffy piece of YA pulp into the perfect spring film, and a perennially watchable one, at that. Ultimately, Disturbia works because LaBeouf is better than the film. Albeit awkward and gangly, not befitting of the traditional star mold, the young actor was ready for a larger stage.
While Hollywood-at-large prepared LaBeouf for leading man status, Steven Spielberg can take credit for taking particular notice in the actor’s everyman sensibility. Always one willing to groom an actor into stardom, the Disturbia producer apparently arranged for LaBeouf to be in contention for the leading role after being wooed by his performance in Holes.³
It actually makes perfect sense that Spielberg was a producer here; his shadow is subtly cast on the film - more conspicuously than something like Super 8, at least. The Amblin films are the roadmap for this type of light yet terrifying suburban film that’s able to deftly rope genre elements into a mainstream production. Spielberg went on to be a major part of LaBeouf’s short-lived but large mainstream success, as the producer of Transformers and director of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.
That we’ll never get to see the logical extension of who LaBeouf was as an actor ten years ago is a serious shroud over the exercise of watching Disturbia now. While we might see more decent performances like the one he turned out in American Honey, last year, I’m not holding my breath for any serious resurgence as a leading man. In fact, the other 2016 film he starred in, Man Down, just made headlines for its ridiculously low U.K. box office numbers, which equated to just a single admittance.
I hadn't even heard of Man Down wasn’t until I saw it on the marquee at my local cineplex. And right then, it was hard to remember that, not long ago, Shia LaBeouf was a shoe-in for Hollywood’s next everyman.
¹ Per IMDB trivia, the copyright holders of Cornell Woolrich's short story 'It Had to Be Murder', which Rear Window was based on, sued DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, and Steven Spielberg for using the story without permission. In 2010, a federal judge dismissed the suit, ruling, "The main plots are similar only at a high, unprotectable level of generality ... Where Disturbia is rife with sub-plots, the short story has none. The setting and mood of the short story are static and tense, whereas the setting and mood of Disturbia are more dynamic and peppered with humor and teen romance."
² Remember how Out Cold used Casablanca as a significant influence, but really it was its own thing, especially since snowboarding wasn’t a thing that existed in the 1940s? Of course you do. Well, this is kinda like that.
³ More like Roles, amirite!?