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by Jay Seaver

"Mystifying and yet somehow understanding."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a moment early in "Bridgend" when the main character's father, a policeman just transferred back to the title city after having spent about ten years in Bristol, is shown the wall of the at-that-point twenty-three teenage suicides that have happened in the past few years. He stares at it like there's something he can do, a mystery to solve, but it's suicide, not a serial killer; there's little folks like him can do but try and pick up the pieces.

That's what makes Bridgend - inserting fictional characters into a situation that actually has plagued the namesake town in Wales - genuinely disturbing: Young people who end it all can seem to be outside the capability of mentally-healthy people to understand, but there are hints that they're not so far outside the mainstream as we might think. After all, if the very happy-seeming Sara can get pulled into this situation, seemingly anybody can. There's a twisted culture of no hope and no leaving, and what other way out is there?

Sara (Hanna Hurray) and Dave (Steven Waddington) lived there before, once upon a time, and when they return, she makes friends easily enough - Thomas (Scott Arthur) remembers her from when they were kids, his girlfriend Laurel (Elinor Crawley) is curious about Sara's horse, and the vicaar's son Jamie (Josh O'Connor) seems to take a fancy to her. Just hanging out turns into visiting the sites where friends died, memorializing them, and acting out.

The way filmmaker Jeppe Rønde approaches this material is impressive - there are the expected melancholy images and frightening scenes, but the balance between malaise and horror is impressively well-balanced. He knows that, like the police, audiences are going to be prone to treat the situation as a conspiracy of sorts, so there are several scenes where a cult will be hinted at before things will swing back to teenagers being dumb, horny kids without undercutting the atmosphere. Both eerie gray stillness and almost inexplicable violence have a place in the story, and they feel like natural counterparts that are each tempting but destructive. He also does a great job of hitting the "it's really important people know someone cares" material without it seeming to preachy or facile.

Sara and Jamie are the ones being referred to when it gets to that point, and the actors are well suited to it. Granted, Hannah Murray is probably well-suited to anything; she gives a terrific performance as Sara, tasked with playing the well-adjusted part of the family early on and doing so in a way that immediately strikes the audience as her being cheerful, with the idea that she is probably swallowing her own grief over her absent mother to keep Dave from collapsing and more vulnerable to whatever this place does than she appears only occurring later. Murray hits all the right notes as the film goes on and Sara seems not consumed by the local culture but increasingly assimilated to it.

That culture is never easy to understand, and not meant to be, although the mostly-young cast makes it believable. Josh O'Connor's Jamie winds up moving to the fore, though he never really becomes Sara's equal in terms of the film's structure. He lets the audience like his character the way Sara likes him, though, and serves as the window for how the place's paradoxes manifest themselves.

As much as the film is centered on the teenage characters, Steven Waddington's Dave might be the part older viewers naturally zoom in on, and he's interesting to consider. There's a knee-jerk "why would you bring your daughter into this environment" reaction, which is immediately set aside; one goes where the work is and does what's possible for the kids. He makes an interesting example of how late-reacting parents can be, though, not seeing what is happening with Sara until he can't do much without angering her or making her feel untrusted, which makes the situation worse. He's not a bad person - his confusion is at least more honest and neutral than the two-faced judgment the vicar played by Adam Rawlins has in his offers to talk things through with the kids - but he symbolizes how utterly unprepared parents can be.

It's impossible to be prepared for this situation, of course, and the filmmakers know that identifying a primary root cause is almost impossible. That's what makes the Bridgend mystery so fascinating and terrifying in real life, and Jeppe Rønde's film does a fantastic job of bringing both the reality and mystery of it home.

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originally posted: 08/13/15 09:22:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

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