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The Valley of Death

That J.T. can act is the least momentous thing in "Alpha Dog."

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Yes, it's a hard sell. On the surface, "Alpha Dog," about a crime that shocked the posh sunny San Gabriel Valley in the late '90s, sounds like it could be terrible. It's full of hard pop music and looks as if it might be filmed with an MTV sensibility to appeal to the so-called youth. It stars Justin Timberlake. Perhaps worse, depending on your opinion, Bruce Willis. Surprisingly, director Nick Cassavetes has used all these seeming adversities to construct a beautiful if violent work of art about a comfy community gone terribly wrong.

The story is very simple. Drug Dealer A, evidently a somewhat famous one named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), is owed money by Drug Dealer B, who won't pay. Retaliations lead to the providential kidnapping of B's kid brother by Truelove and his gang. B, one Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) who is a speed-addicted expert in martial arts, goes nuts, as do his parents (David Thornton and Sharon Stone) and the authorities looking for the kid.

Funny, the kidnapped kid, Zack (Anton Yelchin), is enjoying his adventure. He's hanging with tough cool guys, getting high, getting girls and getting away from his overprotective parents. None of them seems to realize that his disappearance is serious to everyone but him and his new bros, until the kidnappers call a lawyer and learn they could be facing life in prison. That's when things get bad. Really bad.

Cassavetes, son of renowned outsider director John Cassavetes, opens this film with an amazing hallucinatory montage of random silent home movies set to an alternative version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Willis, who plays Truelove's mob-connected father, is interviewed just after that scene. This is one of a few flash-forward moments in the movie commenting on the main events — this one a declaration from dad: Want to know what this is about? This is about parenting, he says. I take care of my kids, you take care of yours. Truelove's best friend is Frankie (Timberlake). Frankie's dad has orgies and grows pot in his organic garden. Frankie is a similar mix of the civilized and profane. Timberlake's tough, emotional portrayal is believable, and just one of many that helps this movie drive home its point. "Alpha Dog" is indeed about parenting, parenting both missing and amiss. It's a disturbing tale of innocence not lost but neglected.

If I were 19 and didn't care about much more than money, partying and girls, I'd probably want to see this movie 200 times with all my friends. But it's also just a great movie. True, there are moments of overacting; the soundtrack could use some music other than gangsta rap; and there are a few anachronisms. But anyone with an open mind can see the power here. "Alpha Dog" is one of the alpha films this year. (R) 117 min. ***** S

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