Private school education in purgatory


Wasted on the Young (MA). Director: Ben C. Lucas. Starring: Oliver Ackland, Adelaide Clemens, Alex Russell. 97 minutes

High school. A place where every assignment bears the weight of your future. Where the petty expectations of peers are not petty at all, but are painfully felt. Where, amid the jostling demands of classroom and schoolyard, you are supposed somehow to 'grow up', and become your adult self.

There are good times, too. But in retrospect, high school appears largely to be a kind of penitential ritual that had to be undertaken on the way to escaping the purgatory of adolescence.

At least, that's my experience. But I wonder if it's Ben C. Lucas', too. Certainly, the Australian writer-director's debut film Wasted on the Young offers a nightmarish vision of schoolyard society, drenched in a sense of hellish dread, that to me seems exaggerated but unnervingly familiar.

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The film focuses on a rivalry between rich kid Zack (Russell) and his stepbrother Darren (Ackland). Zack is smart and popular, an elite swimmer, a small-time drug dealer, and unchallenged king of the schoolyard. Darren is a tech whiz, a swimmer, too, but smaller than Zack, both physically and socially.

Zack and his mates take some petty pleasure in tormenting Zack. That is, until one night when, during a drug-and-booze-addled party, Darren's would-be girlfriend, Xandrie (Clemens) is assaulted and left for dead. At which point, the stepbrothers' rivalry kicks into a higher and more perilous gear.

The film's greatest achievements are stylistic. Lucas' film is visually, aurally and cerebrally resplendent. It's as if John Hughes collaborated with James Ellroy to write a screenplay, and then handed it to David Lynch to direct.

In fact, Wasted on the Young is nothing if not an exercise in Lynchian atmospherics. Lucas employs these in order to strangle a sense of menace out of mundane situations.

He achieves this using loads of slow-mo, hallucinatory flourishes, and prolonged, abstract images of, for example, the boys' bodies sluicing through liquid-silver water. Cinematographer Dan Freene has ensured that the imagery is as compelling and disturbing as the story.

Sound, too, is employed to unsettling effect: jolts of loud contemporary music interspersed with artesian oceans of gloomy noise. The film sounds like the incarnation of every adolescent's combined existential angst as it rumbles down the grimy grey-lino corridor of the viewer's psyche.

With increasing disquiet you realise there appear to be no adults in this world. Absentee parents, and teachers who are never seen and rarely heard (barring one incidental exception), make this seem like an alien world from which the adults have absconded, abandoning their young to their own devices.

There is perhaps a cautionary aspect to this, relevant in the midst of the current furore about schools funding: a pricey education is insufficient if it is divorced from ethical frameworks provided by wise adults. Dangerous, even: Zack, after all, is a smart kid choosing to use his smarts for evil, not good.

The surreal aspects are offset by authentic period detail, notably the everyday technologies that are integral, even organic, to the characters' world. IM and SMS messages appear on-screen as subtitles that float above the characters, as resonant as spoken dialogue. A violent altercation is documented by students wielding camera phones. Webcams and digital video recorders also play a pivotal role.

This is an ambitious but imperfect film. It is somewhat cold and alienating, although arguably this reflects the characters' experience of their schoolyard society. The characters themselves are stereotypes — obnoxious bullies, vicious bitches, loveable misfits; merely vehicles for Lucas' ideas.

But the film's formidable style and fulsome use of the cinematic tools of image and sound effectively carry its themes of youthful alienation, and of the moral vacuity that thrives when social hierarchy stands in for moral order. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Wasted on the Young, Ben C. Lucas, Oliver Ackland, Adelaide Clemens, Alex Russell



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Existing comments

It does happen. It has happened. And, it is not just in private schools.

Bev Smith | 10 March 2011  

High schools are indeed purgatory and not the least of the reasons is the lack of emotional evolution of many teachers finding one with the maturity to deal with any sort of dysfunction is almost impossible Some should never be allowed around adolescents

GAJ | 10 March 2011  

Great article, very punch-ily written. I hadn't heard of the film until now, I wonder it's worth sitting through if just covering the usual turf of high-school angst and bullying? From the sounds of things, the narrative doesn't seem to have any redeeming/ uplifting aspects...

(BTW editor - 5th paragraph - 1st sentence i think you mean "Zack and his mates take some petty pleasure in tormenting DARREN".)

Liz | 13 March 2011  

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