Happiness in “Alpha Dog” is as fleeting as the brief tranquility of its opening credit sequence. With a dreamy rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in the background, grainy home footage sets the scene of an idyllic childhood before the film’s uneasy sense of lost innocence sets in.

Angela Cesere
You gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? (Courtesy of Universal)

Amid a numbing barrage of four-letter words, “Alpha Dog” is a fictional version of the downfall of drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, “The Girl Next Door”), a doppelganger for real-life criminal Jesse James Hollywood. At just 20 years old, James became the youngest person ever to land on the FBI’s most-wanted list for the alleged kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old boy.

The boy’s abduction is only the latest in a series of horrifically violent acts which result when drug addict Jake Mazurksy (a furious Ben Foster, “X3”) fails to pay a long-standing debt to Johnny. When Jake’s innocent teenage brother Zack (Anton Yelchin, “Along Came a Spider”) accidentally falls into Johnny’s hands, he and pal Frankie (singer Justin Timberlake, who acquits himself admirably in his role) suddenly find themselves in a situation that’s far more serious than peddling pot.

Luckily, their young hostage is actually glad to be free of his overbearing parents, and the abduction initially seems like a harmless frat prank. With a clean-cut baby face and timid voice, Yelchin gives Zack an endearing vulnerability which makes his involvement with these two-bit drug dealers feel all the more unjust.

Timberlake, who’s pretty much the only reason to watch this desolate film, delivers a sound performance as Johnny’s easygoing sidekick, and even manages to overshadow Hirsch’s Johnny, a lackluster central figure whose only notable attribute is a primitive instinct for self-preservation. Frankie perhaps ends up the most sympathetic character simply because he comes closest to recognizing the magnitude of the situation.

Director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) clearly thought he was injecting the film with copious amounts of reality, but what “Alpha Dog” lacks is redemption. Each character mechanically performs the actions that the plot demands of him without any moral deliberation. Even Frankie gives in far too easily to the warped peer pressure that somehow illogically places the penalties for kidnapping as worse than outright murder. With their real-life counterparts now in prison or on death row, this is a film that starts at the bottom and is only capable of descending further into depravity as it develops.

No matter how powerful the crime, it needs to be enacted skillfully and artistically to constitute a worthwhile film. “Alpha Dog” does neither. Instead, it opts to unapologetically illustrate one of the darkest sides of humanity without offering any reason for why the story deserves to be told. In lieu of a well-executed film, we are merely given a mixture of bad decisions and their legal consequences accompanied by a disturbing authenticity of detail. While Cassavetes’s quest to portray the life of the infamous Hollywood may ultimately be considered a legal victory, it’s a hollow one at best.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Alpha Dog
At the Showcase and Quality 16
Universal

The Kids aren’t all right

Cassavetes fails miserably in his insensitive depiction of today’s troubled youth, but not all pessimism is so artless. For a healthy dose of depression, check out:

Mean Creek (2004): Siblings gang up against an apparently unforgivable school bully.

Elephant (2003): Gus Van Sant delivers a quietly disturbing drama based on a Columbine-like school shooting.

Thirteen (2003): Supporting actress Nikki Reed co-wrote this tale of two young girls gone a little too wild.

Kids (1995): Director Larry Clark’s alarming classic about AIDS in New York youth culture is still hard to watch – and to stomach.

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