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Wasted On The Young (2010)
Writer and director: Ben C. Lucas

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In the late 18th century, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea for an enormous circular prison built around a central hub from which the prison's guards could observe all the prisoners at a glance. The idea being that if any guard can observe any inmate at any time, then all inmates will assume that they are being observed all the time and will act accordingly. While this nightmarish contraption was never actually built, it has survived as a potent symbol for the way in which social and political hierarchies tend to use fear rather than force to keep people in line. Indeed, with CCTV cameras tracking our every movement and social media archiving our every thought, the fear that our transgressions will somehow be discovered is rapidly becoming a central part of the 21st century experience. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ben C. Lucas, Wasted On The Young combines elements of hard-boiled crime and cyberpunk in an effort to get to the heart of what it means to grow up under constant surveillance.

Wasted On The Young is set in an expensive Australian boarding school presided over by a pantheon of good-looking rich kids. Chief among these divinities is swim team captain Zack (Alex Russell) who controls public opinion through deft manipulation of the school's fondness for online social networking. However, while Zack's control of public opinion initially appears absolute, there is quite a clear sense that the mob has a mind of its own and that the swim team only manage to stay one step ahead of the mob by throwing lavish parties, winning athletic competitions, and occasionally loosing the social media hounds on a convenient scapegoat.

This combination of bread, circuses, and burnt offerings, creates an atmosphere of barely controlled hysteria that forces many students into social isolation. One particularly reclusive student is Zack's brother-by-remarriage Darren (Oliver Ackland). Though smart enough and athletic enough to be popular, Darren is so afraid of public disapproval that he spends all of his time with his head buried in video games or computer code. Indeed, when pretty blonde student Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) takes a shine to Darren, Darren responds by first ignoring her and then telling her to stay away for her own safety. Undeterred, Xandrie shows up at Darren and Zack's house and is promptly drugged by some of the swimming team's female enforcers.

When Xandrie disappears, Darren immediately fears for the worse and begins blaming himself for his failure to respond to Xandrie's advances. Clearly, if he hadn't turned her down, she wouldn't have showed up at Zack's party and if he hadn't locked himself in his room, she wouldn't have been left on her own and been seen as a threat by the swimming team's female entourage. However, this guilt and fear turn into outrage when Darren realises that, even before Xandrie resurfaced, the swimming team were pre-emptively 'spinning' her disappearance as the story of a silly fan-girl who got drunk at a party and made a fool of herself. Clearly, this situation is morally untenable but how to confront it? Buffeted by feelings of love, anger, and guilt, Darren struggles to find a way of dealing not just with the swimming team but with the social network that elevates them above the rest of the student body.

Despite being the work of a first-time director, Wasted On The Young is easily one of the most beautiful films I have seen this year. Filled with a cold, crisp sadness that leaches its way into almost every shot, the film uses a combination of striking cinematography and intelligent set design to create a world that is both intensely lonely and oppressively social. Everywhere the characters turn are windows, cameras and faces poised to strip them of both their privacy and their social standing. Particularly effective is the way that Lucas conveys the social media mob as a series of disembodied text messages that hang ominously in the air whenever something terrible happens. 'Trash bag' they crow upon hearing of a vicious sexual assault. 'Murder' they whisper as someone commits suicide in front of the entire school. The psychotic cruelty of these messages combines with their facelessness to lend social media a tangible and yet abstract reality in the world of the film. These words may not exist 'in reality' but their effects are very much a part of the real world.

Though certainly reminiscent of teen dramas such as D.J. Caruso's Disturbia, or Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's Cherrybomb, Wasted On The Young is best approached not as a traditional high school drama but as a film that draws on two different genre traditions. The impact of these traditions is most evident in the similarities to both Rian Johnson's Brick, and Stephen Moffat's TV Sherlock.

Johnson's Brick is a hard-boiled crime story set in an American high school where a cynical Philip Marlowe-style romantic finds himself lured into a world devoid of clear lines of moral authority. Much like Brick, Wasted On The Young reconfigures the high school experience as a sullen death march across a hard-boiled plane where all pretence has long-since withered away. In fact, Lucas goes even further than Johnson by refusing to show any adults at all. Neither they, nor their rules, figure in the universe of his teenaged characters. These kids are all alone.

Moffat's Sherlock is the BBC's glossy attempt at updating Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories. In an effort to make Holmes seem at home in a televisual climate where the sociopaths of Mad Men, Dexter, The Wire, and The Shield appear normal, Moffat presents the consulting detective as a broken and alienated figure who drowns in information despite feeling distinctly out of place in the world of men. Aside from presenting the character of Darren as similarly brilliant and similarly alienated, Wasted On The Young also uses embedded subtitles to present reality as a world augmented by a ceaseless churn of unearthed facts and online opinion. Blogs, social media, text messages, video messages, and emails, flow around the film's characters like a great tide and, as in Sherlock, the key to advancement lies in a willingness to swim in that tide even though you know the chances are that you will drown as a result of it.

What makes Wasted On The Young such a fascinating film is that while it cheerfully borrows ideas from genre film and TV, it does so in a way that emphasises the absolute mundanity of these genre elements. For example, the words that flow around the characters are not invariably important as they are in Sherlock... they are just a normal part of the world for kids who grew up with social media from a very young age. Similarly, when Lucas gives his characters a touch of the Marlowes, he does so without Johnson's ostentatious call-backs to the language and archetypes of the 1930s hard-boiled crime fiction. These are not high school kids who think and behave like hard-drinking 1930s private eyes, these are high school kids who think and behave very much like normal high school kids, it just so happens that today's teenagers are as ruthless and alienated as the stylised fictional creations of Hammett and Chandler.

As William Gibson's recent writings have suggested, there was a point when society changed and certain ideas ceased to be science fictional. Yesterday's cyberpunk futurism is today's kitchen sink realism. Similarly, many old realist touchstones appear to be little more than genre affectations tainted by reactionary nostalgia. We no longer live in a world where women can afford to be bored doctor's wives. Virginia Wolfe once described George Elliott's Middlemarch as one of the few British novels written for adults but when read today, the book appears about as realistic as a quest to destroy a magical ring. By borrowing elements from the hard-boiled and cyberpunk genres while simultaneously downplaying the fictional character of these elements, Lucas is attempting to capture what it feels like to grow up in a world with its own set of realist touchstones and its own set of worries and concerns.

Beautifully shot, perfectly paced, and filled with intelligent commentary on the challenges of online living, Wasted On The Young joins David Michod's Animal Kingdom, and Justin Kurzel's Snowtown as yet further proof that Australian film is undergoing a true renaissance. Wasted On The Young is absolutely and unrelentingly of the moment.

Wasted on the Young DVD

Wasted On The Young

Wasted on the Young poster

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