‘Teen Torture, Inc.’ review: Heart-wrenching doc details the horrors alleged at ‘tough love’ boot camps

With the Netflix documentary series “The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping” earlier this year and Paris Hilton’s powerful and moving congressional testimony last month about the abuse she said she suffered at group care facilities, the so-called “troubled teen industry” continues to face deservedly harsh scrutiny — and that important trend continues with the vital and often heart-wrenching Max documentary series “Teen Torture, Inc.”

Guided by skillful and straightforward direction from Tara Malone, this three-part series can make for difficult viewing, but through the stories of pain and suffering, we’re also left with profound empathy and admiration for the survivors. Not only do they tell their stories, which resonate like a punch to the gut, they have dedicated themselves to fighting back against a lucrative business that for more than a half-century has been using “tough love” tactics, which far too often cross the line into abuse, at various boot camps, retreats and rehab centers across the nation. We’re left with the impression that these institutions, which in many cases are under little or no regulation and are often staffed by unqualified personnel, are often more harmful than helpful.

“Teen Torture, Inc.” opens with footage of Paris Hilton at a news conference in 2022 where she details the ramifications of the alleged abuse that she suffered at Provo Canyon School in Utah when she was 16: “For 20 years I couldn’t sleep at night, as memories of physical violence, the feeling of loneliness, the loss of peers, rushed through my mind when I shut my eyes. This was not just insomnia. It was trauma.”

A three-part docuseries available Wednesday on Max.

Cut to one Jen Robison, who also endured alleged horrors at Provo Canyon, saying, “When [Paris] stepped forward, I could be right there behind, saying, ‘Look, I’m a completely different person, but the same thing happened to me.’ ”

With restrained use of dramatic re-creations and real-life home videos adding visual context, Robison and other survivors from troubled-teen facilities tell their stories, which often bear striking similarities: a troubled child acts out as a teenager and is shipped off to an institution. The teenager spends months, even years, in a facility where they are subjected to cultlike discipline, from having their heads shaved to being thrown in isolation cells to systematic emotional and physical abuse. They realize the only way to survive is to comply. (As one expert points out, it’s in the best interests of these centers to not “graduate” residents or say they’re ready to return to society. The longer someone is kept in a facility, the longer the monthly fees keep coming in.)

By the time Jen Robison was 14, she had been put on Prozac and had attempted suicide, and her parents sent her to Provo Canyon, where she said she was taken to a utility closet, told to take off her clothes and strip searched. Robison says she was not allowed to be by herself, or to speak to anyone without permission, and “the second you disobey, everything changes.”

Remember Danielle Bregoli, aka “Bhad Bhabie,” who became an instant, infamous viral celebrity in 2016 when she appeared on “Dr. Phil” and uttered the immortal phrase, “Cash me outside, how ‘bout that”? We all had a good laugh at the expense of this brat, right? Aren’t we the superior ones, mocking a child.

Cut to present day, and Danielle, who has remained in the public eye as a rapper and internet personality (and has been involved in a number of dust-ups and controversies), says she was clearly in need of help when she appeared on the show and was confronted by Dr. Phil McGraw, who had all the power, all the leverage, on his side.

“I don’t think it registered to me that we were actually going on a TV show,” says Bregoli. “I was 13.”

After the taping, Danielle was taken to the Turn-About Ranch in Utah (“I was so scared”) where she stayed from 2016-2017. She says the “treatment” included forced labor and isolation. She was put on suicide watch and says she had to sleep on the floor.

Says Danielle: “If you want to get your kid help, you need to find a better way to do it. This … is only going to make your kid worse. They will come back with depression, they will come back with anxiety, and I have to live like this for the rest of my f—ing life.”

Cut to a clip of Dr. Phil from 2021 in which he says, “We don’t have anything to do with what happens with guests once they leave the stage …” Legally, he’s protected. Morally? You tell me.

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Near the end of “Tortured Teen, Inc.,” we catch up with Robison, who continues to speak out against the troubled teen industry. Robison lives in Oregon with her husband and her young daughter. That little girl doesn’t yet know that her mother is a survivor. She doesn’t yet know her mother is a hero.

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