Managing to avoid an air of overt exploitation despite considerable lurid content, writer-director David Burkman’s “Haze” is a fictional portrait of particularly abusive fraternity and sorority hazings at a nameless American university. The filmmaker’s debut feature is a somewhat pulpy drama, but it’s effective nonetheless.
While most movies addressing Greek life have been comic (from “Animal House” to “Neighbors”), there have been a fair number that have treated related bullying issues more soberly, from 1977 B-pic “The Hazing” to 2008 trash-horror delight “Frat House Massacre,” not to mention serious-minded recent Sundance breakouts “Goat” and “Burning Sand.” “Haze” lands in the upper-middle of that pack, mixing pseudo-documentary elements with a bacchanalia of staged excesses that sometimes seem to drive the film more than its fairly strong narrative arc. Yet despite some passages that are hyper-edited a little too much a la “MTV Spring Break,” the film has an admirable confidence and credibility.
Nick (Kirk Curran) is a party-hearty frosh aiming to get into Phi Theta, the most fabled frat on his campus. He makes the initial cut after Rush Week, but still has to survive Pledge Week, then Hell Week, with increasingly punitive tests of “loyalty.” Meanwhile, protests against fraternity hazing attract attention, particularly from Nick’s older brother Pete (Mike Blejer), whom we eventually learn witnessed a prior Psi Theta recruit’s death from excessive hazing. Pete is, in fact, making a documentary exposé on the subject. When the filial attachment becomes known to Nick’s potential “brothers,” they target him for particular abuse.
But cruelty seems to be routine and institutionalized here. It even extends to the willful degrading of Nick’s girlfriend (Kristin Rogers as Mimi), who joins “the hottest sorority” just to stay close to him. She ends up cruelly manipulated not just by testosterone- and alcohol-addled boys, but by her senior Greek “sister” Sophie (Sophia Medley), a nasty seductress who herself is in the controlling thrall of vicious Psi Theta pledge master Dennis (Jeremy O’Shea).
Innumerable line-up scenes of forced mass alcoholic consumption and vomiting that sometimes become scatological might well render “Haze” exploitatively monotonous, but it’s better crafted than that — even if occasional frenzies of hand-held camerawork and hyperactive editing threaten to make the movie into something more cheaply “Girls/Guys Gone Wild” than it is. Burkman purportedly based this generally polished debut feature on his collegiate experiences, as well as on “The Bacchae,” a classical source that’s duly, if somewhat pretentiously, referenced onscreen. The orgiastic slaughter portrayed by Euripedes might be a legitimate dramatic point of comparison to today’s “Greek” scandals. But to be vivid, the literary connection would need to be made in more grandiose or stylized terms than “Haze” manages.
Nonetheless — and despite a less-than-punchy, somewhat feebly ambiguous fadeout — the film is accomplished, energetic and sufficiently smarter than its milieu without seeming to distance itself from it (if anything, it’s a little too embedded). The cast of age-appropriate unknowns is uniformly strong; the packaging ditto, despite a perplexing number of DP’s, editors and generally underwhelming indie-rock soundtrack contributors.