Director Matt Walting’s “Just Say Goodbye” can trace its lineage to the old after-school specials that dealt with such evergreen topics as alcoholism, bullying, and suicide. However, this story about a physically and mentally abused teen who decides his only option for personal freedom is to commit suicide falls short in its delivery compared to those network-produced parables. This melodrama, released to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month, lacks the necessary polish to elevate not just its message, but also the actors’ performances.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse Peterson’s (Max MacKenzie) life hasn’t been easy. When he was six, his mom overdosed on pills, leaving him in the care of his rage-filled father Rick (William Galatis), who made Jesse swear never to utter her name again and destroyed all photographic evidence of her. All Jesse has left is one small pocket-sized photo that he keeps with him at all times.
As his dad turned to the bottle for consolation, Jesse poured himself into his sketchbook. Constantly drawing and doodling became his coping mechanism for the brutality inflicted by both his father, who’s taken to beating him, and high school rich kid Chase (Jesse Walters), whose frequent name-calling and bullying drive Jesse to the brink of madness. Jesse’s lone bright spot is his longtime friendship with Sarah (Katerina Eichenberger), whose fierce loyalty knows no boundaries. The pair spend almost every waking moment together and yet Jesse is skilled enough to hide his suicidal tendencies from her glare.
With the last days of high school pressing down on them, Jesse feels like his world is coming to an end. His best friend is leaving to spend the summer with her father, and he’s left behind, forced to fend for himself in their dead-end hometown. He decides that ending his unrelenting misery by shooting himself with his father’s poorly-hidden handgun is the only option. He tells Sarah, blackmailing her into keeping this harmful secret. She tries everything she can think of to keep him alive — whether it be urging him to call a suicide hotline, digging up his deceased mother’s flower bed, or offering herself up for sex.
While the topic of teen suicide is worthy of exploration, the narrative of “Just Say Goodbye” bogs down in tangents, breeding fatigue rather than drawing us deeper into Jesse’s shattered psychosis. Extraneous storylines, like the silly soap opera-inspired reveal involving Chase and his uppity mother Christine (Charlotte Cusamano Zanolli), fail to add any texture or to impact Jesse’s arc in any meaningful manner. It’s extra padding, and doesn’t provide any insight into another character’s motivations. In the final minutes, there’s a completely superfluous, elongated scene dedicated to a mystery package addressed to Sarah at her old school. The secretary goes into a full-blown monologue about how it got there, who delivered it, and the in-depth instructions for what to do if Sarah isn’t available to pick it up, when all that was needed to make the point land was for Sarah to open the box.
That’s just one of many preventable first-time-filmmaker mistakes, from the boom mic that clatters during an integral confessional, to the poor ADR, to the noticeable inability to hold a frame or properly focus the camera during dramatic emotional peaks (which does a total disservice to the actors’ work). Walting’s shoestring-budgeted feature needed more sure-handed execution than the “we’ll fix it in post” mentality on which most young filmmakers rely. Its rough edges only serve to dull the story’s delicate facets.
That said, glimmers of potential occasionally catch the light. Utilizing transitional bumpers to maximum effect instead of using generic wide shots establishes the characters’ location with aesthetic appeal. The camera’s “god’s eye” position captures the bustling chaos of high school hallways, but also looks down in judgment upon Jesse’s passive classmates who fail to notice his signs of distress. An interstitial shows Sarah checking off days on her calendar cross-cut with her routine backpack preparation, denoting time passage in a subtle, yet clever way. In the final act, Walting’s shot composition and Jeff Simon’s cinematography are artistically distinct, giving a gloss to the gritty subject matter.