09/15/2011 05:54 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:11 EST

MADD Canada film targeting youth exposes human, legal impact of impaired driving

TORONTO - If Jesse could flash forward to a future in the courtroom, he would likely envision himself in robes on the bench -- not facing the grim prospect of time behind bars.

But after a night of excessive drinking, drug use and poor judgment, he sees the possibility of prison and a criminal record, not the charmed life of a young man heading to university to study pre-law.

Jesse is the impaired driver in a horrific car crash, and the main character in the new film "Damages," shown as part of the School Assembly Program of MADD Canada.

A series of flashbacks take viewers from the courtroom to the night of the crash. Jesse and his best friend down drinks before heading out to a concert to meet with Jesse's girlfriend.

While there, Jesse consumes more drinks and smokes marijuana. His younger sister, who has also been drinking, turns up and is feeling ill. Despite being under the influence, Jesse decides to drive her home. It's not long before it's revealed that his life isn't the only one shattered as a result of his decision to get behind the wheel.

Students at St. Joseph's College School in Toronto appeared mesmerized Thursday at the provincial launch of the film, which MADD Canada hopes will bring home their message about the devastating human toll and legal repercussions of impaired driving.

The charitable organization is taking "Damages" to schools across the country, targeting students in Grades 7 to 12. The fictional tale is followed by powerful real-life testimonials from parents, children and siblings who have lost loved ones in impaired driving crashes.

MADD Canada has also partnered with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which is helping to facilitate free screenings at more than 600 schools in Ontario to reach some 500,000 students.

Dawn Regan, director of public awareness and partnership campaigns of MADD Canada, said they anticipate around a million students across Canada will see the film.

Regan said a curriculum guide and DVD kit are left with teachers at schools where "Damages" is screened to expand on the core message of the film: making viewers think about the consequences of impaired driving.

"For us, film is the most impactful type of thing to get the message across," she said.

Regan said "Damages" was also produced in French, and she feels the film is distinct from similar shows they have available for screening in assembly or classroom settings.

"There were lots of opportunities for (Jesse) to make different choices and different decisions, and the fact that we do a lot of flashbacks is quite different," she said. "He's a relatable character, and so I just think this (film) is a really strong one."

The statistical realities involving alcohol-related crashes are also reflected in the film.

Regan said more often than not, female passengers get into cars with drunk drivers when they know they shouldn't.

As for the impaired drivers themselves, Regan said they are most often male, and that the youth demographic is over-represented in crashes.

"Although they only make up about 14 per cent of the population, they're responsible for about 33 per cent of the crashes.... About half the time, those crashes are impaired driving-related."

"So about 50 per cent of the crashes that students are in, between the ages of 16 to 24, 50 per cent of the time they're alcohol-related."

Regan said there have been screenings in Alberta and Quebec in addition to a few in Ontario prior to the formal provincial launch this week, and there's been "tremendous feedback."

"Everybody loved the show, they feel it had a really strong impact," she said. "The crash scene itself is very real and emotional and graphic to some degree, and it leaves them with a long-lasting impact."

Grade 12 student Andrea Alves said the harrowing crash scene was the toughest part of "Damages" to watch.

"I think everybody got the message that this can happen to anybody and you can prevent it, but someone can do it to you," said the 16-year-old. "You don't have to be drunk or on drugs or anything. So definitely it's an eye-opener."

"What I remember and what basically sort of shocked me from the film was seeing how the car lands and how it moves. It actually reminds you: `What are those people inside thinking? And how do they look after(wards)?'"

Fellow Grade 12 student Ida Marrelli said she was trying to hold back tears as she watched the heart-wrenching testimonial of Kelly Brook, who lost two of her sons in separate incidents related to impaired driving.

"It was obviously sad," said the 16-year-old of the film. "I think it really opened our eyes because a lot of kids do get into the car with people who drink or who are on drugs, so I think it's good that we all got to see just an example so we learn not to do it again."