Thanksgiving was last week, and if your family is anything like mine, you probably heard the phrase “social justice” sneeringly used as an epithet as if we were talking about something as vile as omnipresent police brutality or human trafficking. Look in the mirror, reader, we made it through that! We are strong. Although you and I have managed to prevent having our brains completely rotted by propaganda, seeing the way that corporations can attempt to co-opt (whoops, sorry, I meant to say “address”) issues of social justice in their digestible products and mangle those concepts horribly gives a bit of insight into what those issues look like once they’ve filtered down to the level of the largely-unengaged (or propagandized) consumer. And it’s not great!
Makani Young (Sydney Park) is the most recent addition to the group of outsiders at a high school in small town Nebraska, having transferred just a short time prior. Also in the group are: Makani’s best friend Alexandra Crisp (Asjha Cooper); Rodrigo Doran (Diego Josef), who has a mutual unspoken crush on Alexandra; and Zach Sandford (Dale Whibley), an archetypical stoner kid and the son of “Skipper” Sandford, a wealthy farmer with aims to control the whole town by purchasing foreclosed properties, including those that were home to the families of his son’s peers, and is engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle the local police force and set up his own privatized department in town.
Also rounding out this group of outcasts is Darby (Jesse LaTourette), a trans and apparently gender non-confirming student whose hopes to get out of this small town mostly revolve around a NASA internship for which they have replied. As a side note, I’m using “they” here, but the film is never very explicit on this topic; a quick Google search for performer Jesse LaTourette returns results that describe LaTourette as an actress and which use she/her pronouns, while a search for that name with “trans” in the search line located this blog post which states that “a friend reached out and confirmed that Jesse LaTourette identifies as genderfluid, and uses any pronouns,” but I’m hewing on the safe side since I can’t corroborate that elsewhere. The half-assedness of the film’s inclusivity is manifest in the text: we the audience are never really told what Darby’s pronouns are; the only explicit mention of their gender comes when self-congratulatory student council president Katie (Sarah Dugdale) reads an excerpt from their college application essay, which begins with your typical “I didn’t really understand diversity/struggle until I met someone who was different from me” spiel. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty good piece of storytelling in the way that it demonstrates the tendency of white, cisgender people to not only co-opt non-white and non-cis narratives as their own but to do so for profit (or in this case, to get into college), but on the other, it amuses me that Netflix doesn’t see themselves reflected in this narratively vilified character.
We don’t meet these characters right away, however. Taking a page from the Scream playbook, we have the film equivalent of a cold open here, as the school’s presumably teenaged quarterback Jackson Pace (the very twenty-eight-year-old Markian Tarasiuk) engages in some telephonic locker room talk that establishes that he’s a pig and that there’s a Big Game™ that night. Jackson awakes from his pregame rest to discover that his phone has been stolen and the front door has been left ajar, but before he can complete his call to 911, he finds a trail of photographs that depict his violent hazing of a fellow footballer (we learn after the opening credits that this supposedly teenaged victim was still-alive Caleb, played by the also-28 Burkely Duffield, but from the photos it looked like Jackson had beaten a kid to death, which is also part of this film’s storytelling issues). Jackson follows the path laid out by these photos to his bedroom closet where he is confronted by a hooded killer wearing Jackson’s face. While begging for his life, Jackson asks the killer if they want money and offers to Venmo them, which was actually a fairly inspired bit of dialogue that got a chuckle out of me; these pleas fall on deaf ears, and Jackson is killed, while his killer simultaneously sends the evidence of Jackson being an abusive psycho to everyone at the football game.
After Jackson’s Drew Barrymore pre-credits death, we meet the above-mentioned main characters as they huddle up and extend an olive branch to Caleb, who never reported the hazing that happened to him for fear of being outed as gay, only to end up outed by Jackson’s death and facing exactly the kind of ostracization he expected (combined with paranoia that he might have been involved in Jackson’s killing for revenge, despite being on the football field at the time of death). Suspicion also falls on Ollie Larsson (Théodore Pellerin), the school’s resident trench coat kid with the requisite tragic backstory: alcoholic parents who died in a drunk driving accident, teased by others that mom and dad killed themselves because their son was a psychopath, and being raised by his older brother who happens to be a local deputy, which gives him plenty of opportunities to access “files” for red herring purposes. Other potential killers include the aforementioned Skipper, what with his expansionist desires, attempts to set up his own police, and his extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia (most of which Zach has turned into marijuana paraphernalia), as well as Dave (Ryan Beil), “the only Uber driver in town,” whose attempts at standard rideshare driver small talk could also be interpreted sinisterly.
After the second killing, of previously mentioned overachiever Katie, who is murdered while setting up for Jackson’s memorial service and is outed as the host of an anonymous but virulent white supremacist podcast, the local police set up a curfew after ineptly and thus unsuccessfully interviewing the students from the high school, except Zach, whose father’s lawyer pulls the boy from the line-up. That night, Ollie and Makani try to sneak away for a tryst, but join the rest of the town’s teenagers in gathering at a large house party to reveal their most hidden truths to one another in the hopes that doing so will protect them from the killer, assuming that the victims are being murdered because of their secrets. During the party, however, Rodrigo is outed as a secret drug addict and killed, with the killer once again wearing a 3D printed mask of the victim’s face. Makani, still hiding the real reason that she was sent to Nebraska to live with her grandmother, fears that she is next, and although the killer nearly does her in, she’s rescued just in time, although not before her secret is revealed to her peers: when she and several other junior varsity girls were force-fed alcohol at a bonfire in a hazing ritual by upperclassmen, she pushed another girl into the fire in an inebriated rage, burning the other girl severely. Her friends forgive her, and tell her that Ollie is in custody. It seems all is well, unless the killer is still out there, ready to strike terror at the seasonal corn maze.
There are a lot of fun ideas at play here, and I wish that they were in a better movie. I don’t think that any of the film’s failures, which ultimately make this film feel like less than the sum of its parts, can be attributed to any one individual. The lack of cohesion with regards to the killer’s motivation may have been better handled in the novel on which the film is based; I haven’t read it, but internal motivations can be more easily conveyed on the page than on screen, and I get the feeling this happened here. The killer’s final lines, and the lines that our heroine delivers to the killer regarding the incoherence of their stated motives, both feel like the dramatic equivalent of orphaned punchlines, as they’re portrayed as if they are capstones on thematic statements about privilege and the lack thereof, but these supposed elements aren’t as present throughout the text as much as the finale tries to convince you they were. It feels empty and postural, a cynical attempt to appeal to the social justice generation by assimilating its language without grappling with its intent or the meaning of that discourse. If this is what everyone’s dads think social justice is, no wonder they hate it so much. Special praise should be given to the direction and the cinematography, however; director Patrick Brice (Creep) makes some really great choices, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter supports them with some beautiful photography. The finale of the opening scene is particularly striking, as the typical drama of for-cinema American high school football plays out on the field while the stands fall deathly silent as everyone assembled receives a message with the details of Jackson’s bullying, with Caleb then turning triumphantly to the stands after a successful touchdown to find all attention elsewhere. The scenes near the end of the film that take place in a burning corn field are also delightfully composed and visually dynamic, and the idea of a killer creating a mask of the victim is also a stroke of genius and makes for several unsettling scenes. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make this one worth checking out.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond