It was only a question of time before Hollywood came up with the idea of doing Hitchcock's "Rear Window" for the YouTube generation. "Disturbia" is a better-than-average teen pic crossed with a clunkier-than-average thriller.
Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is a gangly, obstreperous teenager whose father was recently killed in a car crash. Traumatized by the accident he believes himself partly responsible for, he punches out a high school teacher for alluding to the incident and is sentenced to house arrest for three months. If he moves beyond the 100-foot perimeter of his suburban Craftsman-style home, his ankle bracelet will alert the cops and his next stop will be prison.
Since Kale is not a bad kid at heart, we can easily sympathize with his accelerating boredom. At first, until his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) cuts off the juice, he enjoys surfing the Web and playing video games. He gorges on peanut butter and chocolate syrup and builds towers made of Twinkies.
If Kale was more of a reader, say, his incarceration might have been a blessing. He's not dumb by any means, but he's too keyed up to use his time "productively." He's an extrovert trapped in an introvert's lifestyle. Until, that is, he begins spying on his neighbors. It starts innocently enough. Through one window he logs the progress of the local philanderers; through another he stakes out Ashley (Sarah Roemer), a teen beauty who has recently moved next door; through the window of his father's office he checks out Mr. Turner (David Morse), who keeps to himself and who Kale begins to suspect is a serial killer.
Director D.J. Caruso and his screenwriters, Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth, are at their best in conveying Kale's increasingly loopy suspicions – which, of course, come to seem increasingly plausible. With help from Ashley and from Kale's best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), he becomes a first-class amateur sleuth. In "Rear Window," all Jimmy Stewart had to work with was a telescope and binoculars, but Kale and his cohorts have all sorts of computer imaging gizmos at their disposal. In the new high-tech world of voyeurism even teenagers can easily become expert operatives.
The suburban setting reinforces the story's anything-is-plausible conceit. "Rear Window" was set in the city, so it was no surprise that a killer would be housed there. In popular mythology, the city is home base for the depraved; the suburbs are where you flee to safety. The filmmakers of "Disturbia" turn that well-worn mythology on its head. They bring out the creepiness in the suburban experience. All that calm becomes unsettling.
In the Spielberg 1970s, epitomized by such movies as "E.T.," the suburbs had an all-American patina. Inside those cookie-cutter lookalike homes lived pipsqueak dreamers yearning for transcendence. "Disturbia" has a cast of young actors who, in the 1970s, might have fitted nicely into one of Spielberg's visionary vaudevilles. In another vein, they might have slotted into the voyeuristic landscape of the Brian De Palma who made "Dressed to Kill" or "Blow Out."
In the current era, though, they are more like postmodern versions of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Although Caruso doesn't provide them with enough brainy problems to solve, they still come across as tremendously industrious and likable. They know that, for all its dangers, they are living out a teen fantasy: Spying on adults in order to get the goods on them.
The bloody wrap-up isn't handled especially well, and I must confess that the most shocking thing about the movie was the casting of Carrie-Anne Moss as a suburban mom. I kept expecting her "Matrix" skills to show up in the final reel. But no, the kids go it alone. And they do just fine. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 on appeal for sequences of terror and violence, and some sensuality.