Reminiscent of Australian high school dramas such as Blackrock and 2:37, Wasted on the Young is the feature debut of writer/director Ben C. Lucas.
Filmed in Western Australia, the story takes place at an exclusive private school, which we are informed is the best because ‘it’s the most expensive’. Darren (Oliver Ackland) is an introspective ‘computer nerd’ who enters this world of privilege and excess after his mother marries the father of alpha male Zack (Alex Russell). Despite being on the swim team with Zack and the rest of his thugs, Darren remains an outsider in this world of elitism, choosing to spend his time playing online games rather than socialising at the wild parties held at his house. Conflict arises when Zack and his friends are accused of gang-raping Darren’s love interest and school ‘good girl’ Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) while she is unconscious at one of Zack’s parties. On discovering the truth of the crime and obtaining solid proof (the act is caught on camera) Darren must decide whether he will follow his familial or moral obligations; as Xandrie poignantly states, ‘if you see something and do nothing you’re not a witness, you’re an accomplice’.
The story and the characters are clichés at best; sensitive nerds, bullying jocks and beautiful mean girls burden the film. This prohibits a more nuanced reading of the characters and their motivations because they are predominantly one-dimensional, especially the ‘bullies’, who are vicious and cruel simply because they can be. While the film is undoubtedly visually appealing (the swimming sequences, in particular, are breathtaking), it is weakened by a plot that is sloppy and often confusing, jerking awkwardly between flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences. The acting is lacklustre and the age of the cast unbelievable for a high school film; Oliver Ackland, for instance, is in his thirties. Ethereal beauty Adelaide Clemens, however, is the film’s saving grace; there is an affecting sincerity to her acting that hardly any of the other main characters possess.
Despite the significance of the film’s central problems (date rape and cyber-bullying) they are executed poorly. There is an exorbitant focus on elitism within the film, particularly in the degree of the boys’ invulnerability. Their dominance and authority at the school pushes the level of believability; even though there is solid evidence that would convict the boys, we are led to believe that Xandrie is powerless in the face of high school popularity. Stars of the swim team, these boys will not be convicted because they are more popular, and popularity is akin to royalty at this school. Zack crudely reminds Xandrie of this, telling her he was called into the principal’s office to check if he was ‘okay’ after the rape allegations surfaced. Xandrie’s disempowerment and subsequent fate is highly problematic and one of the film’s lowest points. Stripped of subjectivity and agency, she becomes simply a vehicle for Darren’s revenge on high school bullies.
What initially sets this film apart – being a morality tale for the ‘Facebook generation’ – is ultimately its downfall. Clearly Lucas is attempting to make a point about current forms of communication, social media and CCTV (everything is filmed and private information is instantly accessible) and to some degree he does succeed. The dangerous and claustrophobic world of cyber-bullying and social networking is explored, albeit superficially. While group texts, Facebook threads, and tweets punctuate the film, most of the violence and confrontation still happens in person, which makes the film’s objective confusing. The intentional exclusion of adults (primarily parents and teachers) from the film does work to Lucas’s advantage, exposing the secret side of teenager life that takes place in the hyperreal universe of the internet, where anonymity is guaranteed and consequences non-existent.
Lucas is correct when he categorises this film as a melodrama; it’s as theatrical as a Greek tragedy. Themes of martyrdom, hubris and revenge suggest that Wasted on the Young has more in common with an Athenian drama than a realistic portrayal of high school life.
January Jones is completing a Masters in literature at The University of Melbourne.