Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As the question of sex education in British schools becomes a topic of controversy once again, it’s interesting to see a film which shows what can happen to young people when sex and sexuality become totally divorced from anything resembling love or respect.

Antonio Campos’ chilly, thought-provoking thriller paints a disturbing picture of American adolescence which has drawn comparison with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant but seems to me an even more effective and realistic examination of a world where intelligent and privileged characters have reached near-adulthood without having any real understanding of basic morality.

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It opens with a rapid-fire succession of video clips on a computer, including Saddam Hussein’s hanging but ending with a long and very disturbing porn sequence. The watcher is Rob (Ezra Miller), a pupil at a well-to-do co-educational private school on America’s east coast. He shares a communal room with some equally prurient fellow pupils, including Dave (Jeremy Allen White), who’s also supplying him with drugs.

He misses his absent dad, his mother is distant in every sense of the word, he fantasises about his English teacher and has a crush on Amy (Addison Timlin), as well as lusting after the pretty and popular Talbert twins. The subject matter is predictable, but the way in which Campos tells his tale is original and constantly challenging.

Shooting mainly in long and medium shot and often cropping the frame, the effect is that the audience is purposely kept at a distance from Rob and all the other pupils, parents and teachers. The technique acquires another dimension when Rob is encouraged to join a video club, one of a host of afterschool activities designed to stimulate the pupils’ creativity. When the twins both die after taking contaminated drugs, Rob is put in charge of compiling a video memorial for them. But the audience is already aware of his actions on the day of their deaths...

The act of compiling the memorial illustrates the gulf between the conventional tributes and platitudes poured out for the twins and the reality of their lives and those of their fellow pupils. For all the floral displays and all-night vigils one gets the distinct impression that at least some of these kids don’t care about anything at all and that tragedy, like violence and sex, is simply an available commodity to be sampled and consumed with no thought to consequences or the feelings of others. A scene with the twins’ parents, where Rob clearly feels no sympathy or empathy whatever, is as powerful and chilling a piece of cinema as I’ve seen for as long time.

The adult characters get pretty short shrift too, with the teaching staff universally well-meaning but ineffectual, convinced that they’ve created a gang of really great kids and unable to come to terms with all the evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to find any particularly sympathetic characters (Amy, initially attracted to Rob as a misunderstood but sensitive soul and gradually realising the truth, comes closest). That’s clearly the point, but it does make the film’s overall effect somewhat one-note.

Campos is well served by his leads, especially Miller, who completely conveys Rob’s dead-eyed amorality and inability to connect. It’s overlong, continuing to reiterate its points for quite some time after the audience has got the message, and doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. But for the most part this is powerful and challenging stuff, a welcome antidote to the “quirky but loveable” stereotypes of recent teen movies. It also makes clear that America’s dysfunctional youth aren’t just found in the redneck belt. These kids have everything – except a sense of right and wrong.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2008
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A boy at an exclusive American private school becomes increasingly obsessed with watching video clips on his computer.

Director: Antonio Campos

Writer: Antonio Campos

Starring: Ezra Miller, Addison Timlin, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosemarie Dewitt, Lee Wilkof, Paul Sparks, Bill Raymond, Gary Wilmes Christopher Mccann

Year: 2008

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: US

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