With the autumn commencement of schools now in full swing, I’ve been drawn to cinema that inhabits those locker-lined corridors. Without exception fall heralds a nostalgic sway within me, as if the compulsion of belonging to that routine and that pre-selected society is forever ingrained in me. Now several years out of college, the feeling is a phantom urge and like all nostalgia it bears sadness along with sentiment. I have chosen 5 films (plus an extra) here that delve into the darker side of the lives of students internationally, spanning the ever-relevant topics of bullying, grief, isolation, stifling expectation, drugs, suicide and…. Demon possession? These films take seriously the realities of peer pressure, social stratification, mental illness and in some cases the roll of technology in the advancement of defamation. They also express the ingenuity and vitality of young minds in the face of hazard, the unknown and dissatisfaction with authority. Coincidentally, most of these riff on the murder mystery genre, but each finds a unique voice with which to exceed mere premise. BRICK (2006) is a millennial staple and stands the test of time. Like several films in this slate, it begins with the death of a troubled girl and then down the cryptic rabbit hole of mystery we go, decoding the circumstances of a death, filling out a portrait of a woman and exposing the ruthless underbelly of a high-school. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role that arguably catapulted him to the A-list) is the discoverer and the detective. The victim is his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emile De Ravin) who’s last words to Brendan were a frantic string of codes over a payphone that will lead him into a dangerous and disheartening investigation. Rian Johnson crafts a compelling cyan tinted noir with a strong pulse and a sensual vibe. It makes for great visuals, with a memorable script and score.
SOCIALPHOBIA (2014) is a South Korean film about Ji-woong and Yong-min, two police academy candidates that become involved in a young woman’s apparent suicide. The young woman, Min Ha-yeong is an infamously cruel presence on internet forums and social media who reaches a national level of unpopularity with tweets about a soldier. The internet explodes, as it does, into a self-perpetuating hate-fest against Min Ha-yeong, The discovery of Min hanging dead from an Ethernet cable in her apartment is broadcast live on the internet by a rabble of nerds-cum-ruffians intent on actually confronting/assaulting her. While ruled a suicide, Ji-woong and Yong-min endeavor to solve the mystery to save their potential careers. What SOCIALPHOBIA puts forth so strongly is that the world of the internet: forums, blogs, etc is not a world of no-consequence, though it is treated that way by its purveyors. It is conflated with the physical/social realm and director Hong Seok-jae explains how the fleeting impression-based perception that the internet engenders is polluting the way people function in daily life and interaction. Throughout the film, every tweet, every post, every video is taken by the masses as gospel. Impressions are regarded as truth and vitriol flows without regard. Mobs become millions with the ease of keystrokes and hashtags.
SOLOMON’S PERJURY (2014) is a massive film by Izuru Narushima, broken unfortunately into two parts. It too presents the discovery of a body as its point of departure, which although ruled a suicide, is followed by a grass-roots student-led investigation bent solely on a cathartic truth-seeking. This time, the story is set at a middle school. SP presents numerous deviations from the genre: firstly the deceased is a boy rather than the overwhelmingly frequent “dead girl”. The other deviation truly constitutes the film itself. Based on an anonymous letter that accuses the school’s leading bully of murder, the students rally and fight against the ruling of suicide, contest the decisions of their faculty and the police and contrive a student court that conducts a formal trial. All of this is done above board, step by step, not in the shadows or in secret. SP empowers its young cast with intelligence, questioning, tenacity and depth of believable extremes. Being over 4hrs long in total, SP spares no detail, hurries no revelation and skimps on no characterization. Everyone has complexity and everyone demonstrates imperfection. That fairness is what draws the film out and gives its inertia such substance.
PARTNERS IN CRIME (2014) is increasingly my favorite film of the year. Taiwanese director Chang Jung-chi takes his cinematic language into the realm of sense memory. Partners is a poetically drawn film which shares an understanding that history is most tangible in dreams and imagination, and that truth for better and for worse is fluid. Three teenage boys find the body of a girl on their way to school, lying bleeding in an alley as the rain falls. This discovery catalyzes a bond between the trio, unknown to each other until that encounter. They come from different parts of the social strata; one bookish, one thuggish and one of the outcast variety, and each hold within them a want for connection they didn't know they had. After an inept session of grief counseling, which relevantly gives headway into the school’s incapacity to deal with the mental health of its student body, they investigate the girl’s suicide. The boys break into her to her apartment, dig into her social media and piece together their own narrative of a girl isolated amongst crowds, bullied yet brash. Technology and social media is used to perfect effect and to perfect degrees in Partners, balanced by the seemingly primal jungle environment wherein the school is located. The mystery is compelling, but more important than even the friendship that grows between the boys as things spiral well out of control, is the importance of being understood itself and that that urgency is held within human bodies that are limited by language.
Michel Franco's AFTER LUCIA (2012) is the most disturbing film I have ever seen. It was the first film I ever saw that made me so uncomfortable and upset that I considered walking out of the theater. After Lucia is unvarnished as it regards Alejandra, a 17 year old girl who becomes the brunt of an all-sides bullying campaign at her highschool. Her father, eager to distance himself from the memory of his deceased wife, moves with his daughter to Mexico City and attends a new high school. At a party with her new “friends”, her sexual act with Jose is filmed on his phone and proliferated by the next day. She becomes the target of such slut-shaming and hazing that you feel only undiluted anger in your powerlessness to stop it. The bullying occurs in the margins, and goes unnoticed as it becomes ever more cruel. What makes After Lucia so effective is the static camera and the fly on the wall quality with which all moments banal and disturbing are captured. I have called this an important film, and I maintain it these years later. It gravely bears the lessons of judgement-in-full based on impressions-in-part.
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992), the sequel-prequel to the beloved series was booed at Cannes and reviled upon theatrical release but has since gained a cult status and many a reconsideration. For me, it gets better every time I watch it. The tone of the series finale leads us right into that of FWWM and represents the intuitive, interiorized and abstract storytelling that Lynch would adopt thereafter. FWWM depicts, among many things, the last seven days of Laura Palmer, a young woman in a Washington town overrun by douglas firs at her wit’s end in the struggle to save her own soul while meeting the expectations of those that adore her. Sheryl Lee’s performance is nothing short of heroic as she is thrust into a state of such penetrating loneliness that swings her from tears to screams to unbridled laughter. FWWM goes for broke on its swan-dive into the blackest nightmare of a homecoming queen. Laura is in trouble and almost no one truly tries to help her because they are more comfortable with the impression of her, though the series goes to great lengths to paint her portrait through its investigation into her murder. Lynch takes a different tack with the concept of impressions-as-truth. The town of Twin Peaks is quaint and picturesque, but is bound by interwoven narratives of sadness, isolation, loss and want which is further emphasized in The Missing Pieces (90 minutes of deleted material that features more of the series cast, assembled into a singular piece for the Bluray). Laura is perceived as a perfect angel, charitable, beautiful, sparked with life. But she too, in her victimized state and her exhaustive quest for goodness, is capable of tamping and manipulation. She is forced to split her identity to survive each day. FWWM makes for a strong companion to Partners for its physicality, its psychology, its emotional urgency and its adventurous visualization.