It's easy to see Ben C. Lucas' first feature, Wasted on the Young, simply as a stylishly directed teen melodrama on steroids and cocaine. In the film, the romance developing between the lovely-but-sassy Xandri (Adelaide Clemens) and the cool-but-geeky Darren (Oliver Ackland) is brutally thwarted by an all-powerful clique of popular kids led by Darren's step-brother Zack (Alex Russell). It is set mostly in either sleek school grounds or drug-fuelled parties, but there is not a school teacher or parent in sight. Early hints of impending violence are realized at a party at Darren and Zack's house, during which tech-savvy Darren prefers to stay upstairs in his room playing violent video games and chatting online, despite Xandri's text messages enticing him to join her. In the wake of the incident that occurs in Darren's absence, the tension and violence rise quickly to a fever pitch, as the popular clique uses technologically enhanced peer group manipulation to suppress their crime, and their victims seek their own technologically enhanced revenge. The twists and turns along the way artfully maintain the tension as the plot unwinds to its conclusion, and the young cast all give great performances, especially the menacing Alex Russell. As a straightforward thriller, the film also offers some easy morals, though the finger wags have been modernized to the era of social networking and cyber bullying.
But although it's possible to watch Wasted on the Young as just a teen-thriller, there is much more to get out of it. For instance, a more interesting way to watch Wasted is as fantasy. Or rather, twin fantasies represented by the two main characters, step-brothers Darren and Zack. One, Zack's, is the fantasy of ultimate popularity, freedom from authority and unrestrained hedonism. The parties in the film may seem unrealistic, the members of the popular clique may be one-dimensional and the power they wield, and the violence with which they wield it, may sometimes be absurd. But that is the point of a fantasy. The other fantasy, Darren's, is the dream of a humiliating and violent revenge shared by anyone who has been victimized by the powerful. Where you find Zack's fantasy, you also find Darren's.
These are common fantasies and the cinema has a long history of indulging them. Revenge fantasies in particular are a favourite of action films, thrillers and, especially, teen films. More and more, our wider culture also indulges Zack's fantasy. The technologies through which we increasingly communicate encourage vapid interactions and the quest for popularity and acceptance — as Zadie Smith recently pointed out, it's not hard to see that Facebook was dreamt up by a 19 year old male. And reality TV shows, perhaps the most Orwellian concept ever coined, indulge our love of popularity contests and our desire to eliminate the unwanted by the sheer force of popular opinion. This sort of fantasy world is the one the characters in Wasted on the Young seem to inhabit, and there are plenty of suggestions that this is what Lucas had in mind.
Seen in this light, Wasted takes just the form it should. The fancy-editing, ultra-slick production and relentless pace make for just the sort of popular entertainment we should think about more critically. It's exaggerated elements — like the violence and drug-taking — and some strange plot features (including the absence of adult interference) are weirdnesses that point to the fact that we're in the realm of wish fulfilment and nightmares. The film's saturation with social networking tools and recording devices isn't a transient comment about those particular technologies, soon to be outdated, but a more lasting observation on how the technologies we use consolidate particular ways of interacting with each other. And while on the level of a thriller the ending may seem over-the-top, it actually works to remind us of the sorts of entertainments we're so routinely offered. In this way it's not unlike the strange, post-climactic scenes of Taxi Driver. The film takes on the form of the fantasy it wants us to think about.
As a film highlighting our various fantasies and the way we, as a culture, indulge them in the cinema and elsewhere, Wasted is by no means unique. The most recent predecessor I can think of is Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, in which we are offered the ultimate revenge tale — obliterating bastard Nazi's! And in some ways there are parallels between the two films, since Wasted so deliberately recalls so many films, especially cult teen flicks (think Heathers and Donnie Darko to name just two). But Lucas takes the idea in new and interesting directions and uses a tense thriller as his vehicle. It's fantastic to see an Australian film, a Western Australian film in fact, that aims so high and achieves so much.
As a teen thriller, Wasted is genuinely compelling, but if that is the only way it is received then it really will be wasted on the young.
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