“Popular opinion is what you’re best at”
Australian cinema has really surged lately with the likes of The Square and Animal Kingdom being released stateside this year. Newcomer Ben C. Lucas now throws his hat into the ring with the suspense drama Wasted on the Young. Described in the Toronto International Film Festival program book as a cross between Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and TV’s “Gossip Girl”, I find it hard to disagree. A high school setting in an elite private school populated by attractive, rich, spoiled children recalls all those over-dramatic, catty shows on the likes of the CW. Every actor has the kind of looks that could catapult a modeling career if truly desired, but these kids can act too. After the film’s International Premiere, Lucas expresses no delusions for what it is he made, saying how it is a melodrama from start to finish. Knowing the risks of such a tainted genre style of hammy performances, poor production value, and extremely wrought story lines, he wastes no time in thanking his casting directors and the job they did. Without these actors lending the script a necessary authenticity, it all would have fallen apart.
Interestingly enough, Lucas was inspired to tell this tale by the American scandal concerning the 2006 Duke University lacrosse team and not something at home. Watching as social media, texting, and teenage interaction evolved within the current generation growing into adulthood, that idea of entitlement and mindset of “getting away with it somehow makes it right” was too much to ignore. So, Wasted on the Young becomes a study of the new communication channels of today’s youth and how vicious the social structure of high school has become. The concept of bullies and nerds or prom queens and goody-too-shoes is ancient, the elite always showing their self-imposed status as rulers of the school with threats, false kindness, and downright evil actions. But 2010 brings with it new avenues for public torture with the internet, cell phones, and the general ease in getting drugs and alcohol while absentee parents vacation for months on end, never having grown up themselves—in fact, no adult is shown for the entire duration of the film. Nothing is private anymore and kids have simply grown meaner in the dog-eat-dog universe they all must tread through.
There is no way to tell this story better than with star athletes and the crowd they roll with. Lucas said he picked swimming because it was a sport that could be easily filmed and performed cheaply while still retaining a sense of status and pedigree. One could argue—and an audience member did—the choice also allows for a metaphorical cleansing of body and soul, the film book-ended and sprinkled throughout by interludes of starkly contrasted swimmers against blackened water shot from below. It’s as though the water is a sanctuary where the regimented life above no longer holds weight. Oliver Ackland’s Darren is able to escape the unnecessary trifling of those ‘too good’ for him, enjoying a place in this jungle where he can exist on equal footing. As soon as practice or a meet is completed, however, and the boys enter the locker room, the divisions reform and Darren once more is ignored or ridiculed, despite the fact his new stepbrother is the establishment’s leader.
Zack (Alex Russell) gave his new brother a chance, a sort of initiation period to see what the ex-public school student had in him. And while he failed to be welcomed into the crew, the fact his mom and Zack’s dad were together brought with it leniency, not from kindness, but from pity. He and his friends are users; they prey on the weak and never suffer the consequences. It seems there is a full-out party every week at his house—a surplus of liquor, cocaine, and music at the disposal of all with a small windowless room in the basement set aside for his court to be used as sanctuary from the rabble or for secrecy when drugged girls are brought down to be defiled. You see, they have no interest in the people upstairs; those nameless souls are invited to buy their support. It is the democratic masses that keep Zack, Brook (T.J. Power), and Jonathan (Tom Stokes) in control. Popularity trumps kindness and to be in their pocket means life will be just a little easier. If that means turning away when the king and his men go overboard, so be it.
Who would you believe, or more accurately, who should you believe if you want life to be simple? Swim captain, party maestro Zack and his gang or quietly studious Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens), a girl looking to fit in, but crushing on the wrong stepbrother to do so? It doesn’t take much effort to sweep a rape and possible murder under the carpet when fear has rendered witnesses numb to the truth. Only the victim suffers from the event and the aftermath of accusations, slander, and plain ambivalence while the only person willing to help is Darren, using his technical prowess to cultivate evidence against the predators. But while he uses technology to shut them down, the rest of the school uses it to spread rumor and insult. Lucas uses superimposed text messages and social media sites throughout, playing into the characters ease of unfiltered communication and opinion. It becomes a race between Darren proving the truth and Xandrie no longer being able to cope with what has been done to her alongside the cavalier attitudes of those responsible.
Pulsating to a brilliant techno/electronica beat, the film’s melodramatic composition grows darker with each passing second as kids are brutally beaten and others finally reach the point where the guilt proves too powerful to forget. All these new toys, this ease with which people have to stay connected, not only allows them access to the heinous crimes they commit, but also inevitably becomes their undoing. It’s all wasted on them, spoiled brats raised to find the easy way out, giving them the power to keep those working hard stuck in the fringes. Darren has reached his breaking point, though, and is about to turn the tables, giving the anonymous public a very private and influential face. The journey is chilling at times, absurd in its realism, and absolutely relevant in its overtly high-styled filter of society. Lucas assaults your senses and your sensibilities, making you an unwilling participant to the activities onscreen. You know it’s just a film, but as the Duke scandal shows, this is happening right now in schools around the world. When adults are no longer willing to set an example, the children will reign supreme. The question left to answer then becomes, are your kids holding the gun or staring down the barrel?
Wasted on the Young 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival