Monday, February 28, 2011

Youth, Speed, Trouble, Film*

Wasted on the Young, for all its deliberately overblown genre conceits, is the best observed high school set film I've seen in a long time. It's also a rare example of a piece of modern commercial cinema with a highly distinctive visual language devised with more ambitious intentions than simply creating pretty pictures. If it stumbles occasionally it is nonetheless a worthy attempt to blend "social commentary" with "genre sensationalism".

But first to the good bits. The film aims to present adolescence, and in particular privileged adolescence, as a bubble within which neither parents nor teachers nor other social classes exist. To this end director Ben C. Lucas eliminates establishing shots and builds his scenes with an unusually large number of close-ups and extreme close-ups. Only on the rare occasion, when the audience has to know the geography of a setting (the party scenes), does he break decisively from the schema but even at these times the ultra-modernist sets, harsh lighting and prickly sound design evoke a suitably rarefied milieu.

Of course the presentation of adolescence isn't limited to this single idea and one of the areas in which Wasted on the Young really shines is in its accurate portrayal of high school cliques. It doesn't turn its nerds into cliches by saddling them with the full range of social impediments. It seems to understand being studious, introverted and having unusual interests is more than enough to mark a teenager as an outsider. Lucas and lead Oliver Ackland have also paid attention to the physical markers that a lack of self confidence bestows - when in school Lucas often shoots Russell from the shoulders up: highlighting his thrust forward head and hunched shoulders.

Similarly well observe bits such as the difference in the size of groups' friendship circles, the casually homophobic change-room talk, the verbal ticks of adolescents (not as jargon filled as many other film-makers seem to think), the better developed social skills of the film's young women and the astute awareness of how different personalities fill different roles in cliques all make for a more accurate portrait of youth than might otherwise be expected from a film trying to relieve teens of disposable income.

Where it most often falls short is in making its social points. For the most part is content simply to observe and generate a portrait of the school's social environment. In doing so it makes several points about its milieu without making the mistake of being preachy about them. A half second shot of a cleaner dealing with the aftermath of a party is enough to remind us that privilege relies on a lower class and that race still plays a part in class. The casually sexist language used  by the film's alpha males and the complicity of their female hanger-ons in reinforcing their attitudes is conveyed in a similarly observational mode, if not in a particularly subtle one.

However when it tries to confront this latter issue head on it stumbles a little bit. It's indictment  of some women's complicity in their degrading treatment becomes accusatory and harsh in a way it wasn't earlier and is made even more so by the complete erasure of the outside world and its influence. The careful noting of the mechanisms through which school yard bullies reinforce their dominance becomes a pointed assertion that if one isn't actively opposing bullying one is taking part in it.

Similarly some of its style seems to miss the mark. The rendering of revenge fantasies as digital images initially seems to suggest that technology is youth's medium of choice for dreams. However this is belayed technology's frequent, highly practical intrusion into the narrative itself and it quickly becomes clear that Lucas has little to say about it but instead is merely highlighting its pervasiveness. And there's no particular reason why he should have anything more to say about it except that its prominent use as a stylistic element becomes merely a flashy tick. Similarly the last shot makes it clear that the frequently used image of abstracted, swimming bodies is merely a build-up to a final suspense shot and otherwise serves little purpose outside of being a pretty picture.

The final suspense shot and the narrative event leading up to it also serve to muddy the film's position on bullying. Having clearly staked out the issue as a central issue and offering a kind of commentary on its mechanics grants the film's final moments much more moral significance and responsibility than might be expected of a more conventional, less weighty thriller. That the film, having suggested that the solution is to make people aware of the full weight of their (in)actions, should then complicate itself by replacing the old manipulative, bullying top dog with a new, somewhat more benign one is somewhat surprising  which I'm still not entirely sure how to interpret.

On one hand there is the question of whether we have the right to expect entertainments to be socially responsible. On the whole I would say that we shouldn't necessarily do so but that if a film announces that it is going to wade into social issues and is clearly attempting to present its opinion on them then it should be judged on that basis. On the other hand there is the difficulty of separating what the author of a given work is saying and what their characters are doing and saying. And with regards to this film I don't think I have that quite figured out.

*Title is a lame play on a Cassius (French electronica artist)  single. I should probably stop trying to be more creative with titles, or at least try something other then references.

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