The teen film has a long tradition of using the politics and social hierarchies of the schoolyard to comment on the adult world. Romance, friendship, power struggles, groups dynamics, attitudes towards sex and challenging authority are frequently explored in films about teenagers in a way that offers far more insight into the values, attitudes and issues facing contemporary society than many films supposedly aimed at adults. The new Australian film Wasted on the Young is visually and tonally reminiscent of hyper-real and self-aware teen films such as Heathers, Cruel Intentions and Brick, however the dark predatory sexuality that underpins it aligns it thematically closer to River’s Edge and even Blue Velvet. In fact, Blue Velvet director David Lynch gets a thankyou in the end credits and it is clear that Lynch’s films are a big stylistic influence on Wasted on the Young. The narrative concerning young, beautiful and privileged people immersed in a world of sex, violence, drugs and techno also evoke the nihilistic novels of Bret Easton Ellis, especially Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction. Although, if you were to truly boil down the elements of Wasted on the Young, a film where no adults are even seen on screen, then William Golding’s seminal novel Lord of the Flies emerges as the most apparent source of inspiration.
Yet it would be a mistake to accuse writer/director Ben C. Lucas of making a derivative film as Wasted on the Young contains a distinctive feel that allows it to stand on its own as a disturbing parable of Australian society. It’s a film about a pair of stepbrothers: popular and powerful Zack (Alex Russell) and the quieter and studious Darren (Oliver Ackland). The pair attend an elite and expensive school, which is deliberately made to look slightly artificial to emphasise how such institutions can be so far removed from the rest of society. The cold and hard lines of the metallic school buildings are bathed with a persistent cool blue light and at times almost look futuristic. Like the genetically superior but lifeless workers in the Gattaca Corporation from Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film, the students are immaculately dressed and groomed. However, the haunting close-ups of the vacant-eyed faces and the very Lynchian technique of combining slow motion shots with deep rumbling sounds on the soundtrack signal the dark undercurrents under the surface of perfection.
The dominance and influence that Zack and his friends have over the rest of the school population is the most disturbing metaphorical element of Wasted on the Young. Zack and co are wealthy, white, straight Alpha Males who excel in sport, aren’t particularly bright but are masters at the art of knowing when to inflict violence and when to simply threaten it. As a result they get what ever they want and are surrounded by acolytes who pander to their egos out of either aspirations to be one of them or fear of persecution. It’s a damning indictment of mob mentality where the rich, powerful and popular are so easily let off the hook and get the benefit of the doubt by a submissive second tier of society whose fear of standing out translates into dutiful obedience. Even the film’s ‘hero’ Darren does not so much go on a narrative arc that sees him confronting Zack but focuses on the difficulty he faces going from somebody who passively keeps their head down to somebody who has the courage to take a stand. Darren is almost a modern day Hamlet who comes undone by his hesitancy and inaction for much of the film.
For the most part Wasted on the Young is an extremely impressive film with a very powerful sense of sinister foreboding. The use of flashbacks to fill in missing pieces of plot information at key points works extremely effectively and the acting is very strong, especially Ackland who gives Darren a likeable brooding charm. It’s also a beautifully stylish film that effectively incorporates the role of social media in the lives of young people and the distorted failed-rendering effect from faulty digital video playback into the film’s alienation aesthetic. The fear of school shootings is also woven throughout the film and given an almost mythological presence. Unfortunately the final act does not hold together as well as it could so that while the film concludes in a way that remains true to its rule-of-the-mob theme it does also somewhat become a convoluted revenge narrative. Also, one of the main characters Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) disappointingly loses a lot of her narrative agency to instead simply become a catalyst for Darren’s angst. Nevertheless, for the most part Wasted on the Young is a slick and striking film that presents a disturbingly recognisable world of plutocratic rule in the dark heart of Australian society.