Teenage bullying and the pernicious potential of social media are the hot topics at play in “Wasted on the Young,” a slow-burn thriller that’s fresh and compelling before dipping slightly into more conventional genre moves in the final furlong. Set among elite high-school seniors involved in an escalating hate war, pic reps an impressive debut by Aussie scripter-helmer Ben C. Lucas. World preemed in the Sydney fest competition, where it earned an honorable mention, this visually polished, very well-acted item has strong fest legs and offshore niche claims. Down Under release date is yet to be announced.
Bound to draw comparisons with Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Lucas’ script delves much deeper into the process by which tormented youngsters can turn to rage. Though the social strata here are very different, the tone of “Wasted” more closely recalls Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” (1986), about a teen group’s disturbing reactions to a murder committed by one of its own. Uncomfortable ambience is heightened by making adults invisible; parents and teachers are barely mentioned, much less seen.
Nonlinear narrative opens with the apparently lifeless body of Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) being dumped on a beach. Flashbacks to several days earlier show her as a clever, independent-minded girl with a crush on Darren (Oliver Ackland). A conscientious computer geek, Darren is tolerated by stepbrother Zack (Alex Russell), who commands absolute authority as chief bully and leader of the posh school’s cool clique.
Keeping Xandie’s precise fate a mystery until the halfway mark, the action switches from her attendance at a party hosted by Zack to speculation over what led her from the drug- and alcohol-fueled gathering to the beach. A strong suggestion that Zack and his obedient followers Brook (T.J. Power) and Jonathan (Tom Stokes) are responsible triggers a playground war of words that snowballs into violence and sets Darren on a dangerous collision course with Zack.
Riveting narrative thread is the use of communication technology by teenagers. With clinical precision that will make parents shudder, the screenplay shows how texting, “sexting,” chatroom discussions, cell-phone videos, webcam hookups and other social media can transform rumor into hatred and bullying, with potentially tragic consequences. Clever visual touch involves subtitle-like text-message displays as they’re dispatched and received.
Age 30 and looking 10 years younger, Ackland convinces as the movie’s moral center and potential powder keg. Debutant Russell is chilling as ringleader Zack, whose ruthless manipulation of lieutenants and cold-blooded threats invoke the aura of a young Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho.” Clemens expertly essays her complex victim, and flame-haired Patrick Cullen is a vibrant addition as Darren’s loyal buddy, Shay.
Although the denouement can’t quite sustain the almost hypnotic air of malevolence preceding it, Lucas’ vividly drawn characters and inventive storytelling are worthy of high praise.
Widescreen HD lensing by Dan Freene is aces. Silky smooth camera movement and striking, color-desaturated compositions are perfectly complemented by a searing electronic score with punchy side shots of bass ‘n’ drum. Other technical contributions are topnotch.