Wasted on the Young -- Film Review

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Calling-card movies such as Ben C. Lucas' "Wasted on the Young" frequently turn up at festivals. These are debut films for ambitious young filmmakers with eyes more on their next and potentially much higher budgeted project than on the project at hand. These are, usually, genre films, or in the case of "Wasted" a jumble of genres, where the director can ride herd on the photography, sets and editing to impress producers and other talent scouts in dark theaters overseas.

Mission accomplished in "Wasted," as the young Aussie writer-director dazzles the eye with an impressively complex visual design while plugging into youth culture and social networking -- which he takes pains to portray as vacuous and cruel.

No doubt more festival dates loom after Toronto, but acquisition folks may be wary. Yes, there is talent on display here, but the film itself makes little headway on an emotional level. Paramount has acquired rights for Australia and New Zealand.

Lucas plunges not-so-bravely where many have gone before -- into a private high-school with its entitled kids and social cliques. But right from the start, he hints that he has crime, not comedy or social satire, on his mind. His images are almost monochrome -- the school's black-and-white dress code goes a long way to emphasize this look -- and his jumps in time suggest he's angling at something along the lines of Gus van Sant's "Elephant."

Indeed he seems to tell two different stories at the same time. A couple of characters even muse they seem to be in an alternate universe. In neither universe, however, do these characters have much depth, as the villains are cartoon-thin and the protagonists revel disconcertingly in their victimhood.

Darren is the new kid in an elite high school, the kind where the lesser roles are cast more or less age-correct but the mean actors all look like they should be working on post-doctoral degrees. For instance, Zack is played by Oliver Ackland who, according to IMDb, was about 30 when the film was shot.

Darren is athletic enough to make the swim team but otherwise he's a geek, cloistered in a dark bedroom with his computers, display monitors, in-house video system and social networks. His mother dragged him into this world through a second marriage that saddled him with a new city, school and stepbrother.

That stepbrother, Zack (Alex Russell), is sharp looking, charismatic and thoroughly evil. Zack rules the campus with bullies Brook (T.J. Power) and Jonathan (Tom Stokes) as faithful lieutenants. At one point, he makes a pass at pretty but rebellious Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) but she rebuffs. To his anger and amazement, she has her eyes on Darren.
At a party Zack throws at his multi-level, highly modern house, he sees to it that Xandrie gets loaded in a basement where he and his buddies can repay the slight.

At first -- in fact it's the opening scene -- she appears to be dead and dumped on a nearby beach. Then Xandrie makes a surprise re-appearance at school. From here on in, the story splits into different scenarios. In one, Darren and Xandrie must sort out what may have happened and how they feel about each other amid a blizzard of texting and gossip about the incident; in another, the two participate in a school-shooting rampage.

Lucas doesn't leave much doubt which story is real. The shooting is made to look unstable with flashing images and bodies vanishing -- a death wish neither acts upon.

Only Xandrie does finally act. The devastation left by her deed leads to the final act, at yet another Zack party, where social networking, peer pressure and public opinion close in on the stepbrothers to an artfully vague conclusion.

The film is highly insular. No parents -- indeed no adults -- are ever seen and the police and school, you are told, are only interested in protecting Zack's good name. In such isolation, Zack is a Neitzschean Superman who can do what he wants. Darren and Xandrie are portrayed as having no options that don't involve violence.

This is an artificial world, a made-up pressure cooker wherein Lucas can let his unconvincing morality tale play out. His actors are all intense and the sets cold. An electronic score pushes the film at all times. Everything is designed to look cutting-edge, envelop-pushing and daring. What it is is depressingly banal and trite.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: WBMC in association with Screenwest, Lotterywest, Javffa Pty Ltd, Screen Australia
Cast: Oliver Ackland, Adelaide Clemens, Alex Russell, T.J. Power, Tom Stokes, Patrick Cullen, Georgina Haig
Director/screenwriter: Ben C. Lucas
Producers: Janelle Landers, Aidan O'Bryan, Harvey Wong, Liu Qiang
Director of photography: Dan Freene
Production designer: Sam Hobbs
Music: The Transcients
Editor: Leanna Cole
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 97 minutes
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