The Welsh county of Bridgend has experienced a massive outbreak of teen suicides since 2007. Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde’s first fiction feature dramatizes the seemingly viral string of deaths through the eyes of a new girl in town. Sara (Hannah Murray) arrives in Bridgend with her policeman father (Steven Waddington), who’s tasked with investigating the spate of suicides. It’s Sara, however, who becomes inculcated in the cult-like routines of the young community, beginning in the halls of school and moving out to the forest, where lithe, ruffian youths congregate like a restless pack of wolves.
The teens, led by the charismatic Thomas (Scott Arthur) and sensitive priest’s son Jamie (Josh O’Connor), drink and skinny dip until they’re overcome with pained, aggressive mourning. They howl the names of their departed peers, most of whom have been discovered hanging from trees in the forest. And as Sara falls deeper into this highly ritualistic social circle, Bridgend essentially outs itself as a gothic coming-of-age tale ponderously obsessed with the dark, corruptible forces of peer pressure.
Bridgend, with its dark-blue-hued cinematography and murky music, is all foreboding atmosphere. Such an ominous and overbearing milieu might seem like an apt choice given the tragic subject matter, but Rønde doubles down on the suffocating ambience, prioritizing this aesthetic tenor without ever homing in on anyone’s psychological core. The closest we get are glimpses of conversation in an ineptly rendered private chat room.
The film is, by necessity, unable to access the emotions that motivate the broadly self-abnegating behavior of all of the teens, but it still manages to trivialize the drama by way of a few bombastic plot twists. Most egregiously, its depiction of suicide is ultimately rendered glib, dependent on exploitative “will they or won’t they” payoffs. Bridgend has the portentous weight and formal production chops of an expensive psychological thriller, but its cheap narrative qualities only make the whole affair seem like a bounced check.