The appeal of programs that put at-risk youth on a path to redemption is as old as “Scared Straight!,” the groundbreaking 1980s documentary. Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock, lends his celebrity to the similarly themed “Rock and a Hard Place,” which hews closer to reality TV than most of HBO’s nonfiction efforts.
The film centers on the Miami-Dade County Corrections & Rehabilitation Boot Camp Program, which seeks to break the “cycle of incarceration” by putting 38 young men, all facing prison sentences for serious crimes, through a 16-week boot camp conducted by military personnel.
“This is where your way got you,” the participants are told, during an opening in which Johnson makes a brief appearance, discussing his own youthful run-ins with the law.
After that, “Rock and a Hard Place” pretty dutifully chronicles the program’s techniques, among them using physical exhaustion to “break down resistance” to the rehabilitation regime. There is, not surprisingly, a lot of drill-instructor-type screaming at their young charges.
Notably, the narrative that unfolds isn’t all roses and happy endings. Not everyone makes it through the program, with sobering consequences facing those who’ll wind up in prison if they drop out or are dismissed.
Still, where the best HBO documentaries bring real depth to a subject, “Rock and a Hard Place” has a once-over-lightly feel. Although the project Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (“Baghdad ER”) directed the project using a spare, verite-style approach, there’s a clear element of emotional manipulation, like showing both sides of a phone call between a recruit and his understandably concerned family.
There’s a graduation ceremony for those who weathered the ordeal, and an encouraging note that the recidivism rate is low. Even so, the fleeting glimpses of what comes after for the recruits feel insufficient, given that this is the sort of enterprise whose true success can only be judged in years, not months.
Johnson clearly deserves credit for investing his time and energy, leveraging his stardom to provide this exposure to a program that promotes rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration. But at a time when the lines between reality TV and true documentaries have a way of blurring, “Rock and a Hard Place” plays like something caught in its own awkward middle ground.
“Rock and a Hard Place” will premiere March 27 at 10 p.m. on HBO.