An entertaining, if rather effortful, lunge at creating the feel-good youth suicide-pact buddy caper of this or any other year, “New Year’s Day” finds Brit director Suri Krishnamma doing an about-face from the charmingly old-fashioned restraint and character nuance of his debut, the Albert Finney vehicle “A Man of No Importance.” Soph feature’s considerable stylistic flash and hyperbolic content will probably strike a chord with home-turf teens. But offshore its hard-sell slickness may prove a liability; critical support is likely to be guarded for a pic that makes adolescent angst look as giddy as a day of extreme-sportsmanship.
Breathless opening seg has best mates Jake (Andrew Lee Potts) and Steven (Robby Barry) rocketing off to a ski holiday in France with their high school class. We’re made well aware of their (somewhat grating) youth and irrepressibility, captured en route and on the slopes by videocam — so it’s almost a relief, as well as a rather too calculated “shock,” when fate abruptly silences the lot. An avalanche buries all; only Jake, Steven and an adult chaperone (who never comes out of his coma) are pulled out alive. Jake’s girlfriend numbers among the dead.
The two boys return to their southern coast towns amid a flurry of tabloid attention, and variably helpful responses from their families. Raising three children on Social Security checks and antidepressants, Jake’s divorced mum, Shelley (Anastasia Hille), needs Jake, her eldest, to be the stable member of the household. Steven bears a stereotypical rich-kid grudge against his uptight MP dad (Michael Kitchen) and exasperated socialite mother (Jacqueline Bisset), who try to make up for their past indifference with futile attempts at discipline.
In their different ways — Steven’s retreat into sarcasm, Jake’s teary despair — both lads are traumatized, and wonder if it’s worth soldiering on. Steven proposes “defying fate” via blood pact: They’ll spend the next 365 days living like there’s no tomorrow, then duly commit suicide. Steven doesn’t inform Jake until later that the 12 daring “tasks” they’re to complete were in fact speculative “last wishes” dreamt up for fun by their late classmates.
Resulting pranks include setting fire to the school, robbing a bank and “eating an ice cream in Timbuktu.” (Fudged depiction of latter is film’s sole notable concession to budget limitations.) But Steven’s fatalism seem to run deeper than Jake’s, and his loyalty much less so. Various pressures, including a brief hospitalization for Valium-OD’d Shelley, leave the duo’s friendship — as well as their pact — imperiled.
The turbulent emotions leading to story’s predictable ending, complete with triumphant final freeze-frame, seldom feel like anything but a contrived attempt to jerk aud response in as many directions as possible. Nearly every scene in “New Year’s Day” comes off more hyperactive than heartfelt; one is grateful for the few quiet, measured sequences.
If Ralph Brown’s screenplay (whose stabs at profundity consist of homilies like “Tomorrow becomes yesterday so fast”) seems manipulative, Krishnamma’s direction is positively aerobic. There’s nary a moment left unfiligreed by visual gymnastics: slo-mo, fast-mo, fisheye-lensing, tinted images, overhead and handheld shots. Similarly, production design is rather gratuitously inventive; Jake’s “poor” household is jammed with ever-so-artful clutter, while an alleged “squat” in which the boys shoot heroin looks like nothing so much as a gallery installation. Soundtrack likewise provides nonstop, sometimes heavy-handed commentary on the action via eccentrically diverse tunes.
Sum effect is showy and never dull, but may require the gullibility of youth to be swallowed whole. Pic scarcely rates among the more serious screen treatments of suicidal urges and post-traumatic recovery; in fact, it just skirts outright fraudulence.
Juvenile leads, both making their feature debuts, do OK bearing a heavy load of histrionics; as the more earnest of the two, Potts initially hits his emotional targets a bit too hard. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”) gets the principal yet rather banal adult role, as a school counselor who conveniently doesn’t seem to have a private life — she’s ever-available to take care of the boys and their families.
Widescreen production’s tech aspects are all high-grade.