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.
While Bridgend feels cut off from reality despite its “inspired by real events” roots, Hélène Zimmer’s Being 14 is a much more realistic representation of young mindsets and behavior. Focusing primarily on three girls—Sarah (Athalia Routier), Jade (Galatéa Bellugi), and Louise (Najaa Bensaid)—in their final year of middle school in suburban France, the film is structured on a formal conceit of seasonal chapters, opening in the fall and ending in summer. The girls’ alternately joyful and frustrated sense of their own selves—and of each other—is as volatile and shifting as the seasons. Zimmer candidly evokes the essence of female friendships that are made or broken, sometimes simultaneously, on the brink of adulthood. As a teacher scolds the potty-mouthed and note-passing students in the opening scene, he exclaims, “This is a classroom, not a zoo!” The comparison isn’t inappropriate, as the protagonists navigate their social relationships with fight-or-flight showdowns within the cafeteria, in the parking lot smoking cigarettes, and at booze- and pot-fueled weekend parties.
Being 14 exhibits characters whose poor attitudes and nasty comments are some of the crudest cinema has seen since Larry Clark’s Kids, which is an obvious influence. But Zimmer doesn’t hold them unaccountable for their actions, as the camera subtly implies that the complexity of their generosity and anger toward each other is built out of narcissistic undoing. The characters enforce their own problems on their interpersonal dynamics, as they’re unable to communicate with each other because they’re not fully sure of, and comfortable with, themselves yet. Zimmer’s direction may appear laissez faire, but it’s confident in its observation on the cycle of friendships and how teenagers treat each other in order to feel superior. Throughout, no laugh, sneer, pout, or text message appears to go unnoticed by Zimmer’s long takes, which are acutely keyed to the lives of these badly mannered kids. The film successfully conveys what it’s like to be stuck in a teenage girl’s mind and body while imparting an emotional, almost ephemeral sense of friendships that may only last until graduation day.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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