Saturday, November 28, 2015

AFI’s EU Showcase ’15: Bridgend

These Welsh teens ought to be happily working in coal mines and listening to Tom Jones. Instead, they spend too much time in a creepy internet chatroom that may or may not be encouraging them to take their own lives. Many have already. As a result, their county has become internationally notorious as a so-called “suicide cluster.” It is a very real, still unresolved tragedy that gets a fictional work-up in Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde’s English language narrative Bridgend (trailer here), which screens as part of the AFI’s 2015 EU Film Showcase.

Dave the copper has returned to his ancestral home of Bridgend with his moody teenaged daughter Sara, despite knowing suicide runs rife amongst the young adult population. There he will apparently be the only civil servant investigating Wales’ most notorious string of untimely deaths. Hey, a gig’s a gig—and what’s the worst that can happen? Despite her Englishness, Sara quickly falls in with her fellow classmates, because they presumably have open spots for new mates.

It does not take long for tragedy to strike anew, but she is shocked to hear it is Thomas, the school’s bad boy with whom she had already developed a complicated relationship. She soon falls back on her first choice, the ineffectual minister’s son Jamie. He is a sensitive lad, who takes Thomas’s kid brother under his wing, but he seems to know more about the suicide epidemic than he lets on.

Rønde’s film is ill-conceived right from the start, largely since the Bridgend phenomenon remains an open mystery. You can tell he is conflicted, laboring to find the right tone and structure, vacillating between some sort of high-end genre conspiracy yarn and a meditative examination of grief and alienation. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s lush cinematography is stunningly evocative and Rønde has an undeniably keen sense of visual composition, but the film suffers from an initial, insurmountable credibility gap. You just can’t accept a single widower father would knowingly move his angsty, overwrought daughter to a known suicide cluster.

Problematically, Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray and Josh O’Connor are both rather vanilla as Sara and Jamie. Frankly, the film feels the lack of Scott Arthur’s Thomas and his visceral brooding rather acutely. Elinor Crawley is also so charismatic as Sara’s welcoming new BFF Laurel, we necessarily fear for her longevity in the film.

Bridgend looks great, but it is impossible to know what to make of it. Clearly, Rønde had no idea where to take it, especially since he could not give it any sort of closure, per se. Instead, it is a strangely accomplished exercise in flailing about, with no sense of direction. It is a bold, potentially offensive failure that will probably gain cult defenders over time. For the forewarned, it screens this Wednesday (12/2) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase.