In the opening moments of Rene Eller's Dutch-Belgian drama We, it would be reasonable for you to believe that you may have stumbled across some long lost Rob Reiner film.
The opening moments offer an ethereal aura, a sense that all is well and sublime and even happy in what is an obviously suburban neighborhood where there are no signs of strife or conflict or crime.
All is well.
Of course, all is not well in this rather harrowing drama based upon the novel "Wij" by Elvis Peeters. It's a novel that has been likened to the works of Bret Easton Ellis, a relatively slight piece of fiction that runs a mere 171 pages in length yet packs in those pages scenes reminiscent of two of Ellis's most noted works, "American Psycho" and "Less Than Zero." We may very well be more disturbing than either of the cinematic adaptations of Ellis's work, Mary Harron's American Psycho and Marek Kanievska's Less Than Zero, both of which largely chose style over substance and paled in comparison to Ellis's masterful writings.
Eller, on the other hand, has created a cinematic endeavor of quiet brutality, a pitch dark glimpse into the collective soul of a millennial generation where one is imprisoned by freedom and isolated within the communal experience. It is impossible to simply dismiss We as exploitation, though it is a film that is so explicit that when it screened at Raindance Film Festival the festival was required by the local city council to blur out two 5-second scenes in the film in order for it to be screened.
Indie distributor Artsploitation Films is releasing the film on DVD/Blu-ray on February 18th, a release that will offer the unedited version of the film (but with a reversible wrap), while noting that the film's planned VOD release in April will likely be edited on most, but not all, of the streaming outlets due to its unflinching and quietly raging scenes of teenage sexuality and violence.
We introduces us to the world of eight friends, four boys and four girls, who are seemingly all privileged yet frustratingly confined within the roles they have been assigned. Initially, their boring summer clubhouse gatherings seem to be filled with innocent curiosity and slight hints of mischief. It doesn't take long, however, for their seemingly idyllic Belgian-Dutch border village to seem more menacing than it did before, their innocent games turning into sexual curiosity and their sexual curiosity turning into not so innocent expressions of porn distribution, sexual assault, prostitution, and blackmail. Amidst a world where the difference between right and wrong becomes blurred, their seemingly perfect lives become increasingly imperfect with a dark undercurrent of inevitable devastation emotionally or physically or both.
That false sense of security that Eller plants early in We dissipates into stark reality, an even stronger sense that these teens begin living into a world that they don't fully understand and in which they become both victims and perpetrators. Eller doesn't flinch when portraying the film's almost playful brutality, filming it through their eyes and refusing to look away. If Eller were to direct American Psycho, you have the feeling he'd have the good sense to have left in the novel's brutal but necessary child at the zoo scene, a scene that Harron dared not touch.
Eller? He doesn't hold back.
I'd dare say that We is so shockingly explicit that the vast majority of critics won't have the presence of mind to actually review the film itself, instead focusing on its explicit nature. It must be noted that while its explicit nature shouldn't be ignored, neither should its fine ensemble cast. There isn't a weak player in the bunch, from the soft yet deceptive vulnerability of Laura Drosopoulos's Ena to the equally deceptive menace that seems to envelope Aimé Claeys's Thomas. This is a tremendous ensemble cast that exposes themselves, quite literally, physically and emotionally.
Maxime Desmet's lensing perfectly weaves together the film's sense of playfulness that wraps itself around each character even as their actions become increasingly devastating and consequential.
These are not young people who are seemingly intent on doing harm. They simply do harm.
That's freedom. Ya' know?
Eller's script is a work of wonder, occasionally quite profound and frequently rather squirm-inducing in its normalcy. There's lots of meaning to be found here, yet there are moments, shocking ones, where no meaning can be found other than what it means to experience a collective, communal gasp of disconnection and striking out. It'san uncomfortable watch almost precisely because if we're being honest it also feels incredibly familiar.
Eller picked up the prize for Best Director at the Tirana Film Festival, while the film captured the Best Feature Film prize at the Rome Independent Film Festival. Wouter van Luijn's editing received the Golden Calf Award for Best Editing at the 2018 Nederlands Film Festival.
We most certainly isn't a film for everyone. The film's explicit nature alone will likely have the more timid moviegoers cowering in a fetal position crying out for their mama, but Eller's unflinching and honest portrayal of disconnected youths and a generation on its collective last gasp will likely resonate with those who prefer cinema that challenges and artists with enough integrity to tell an uncomfortable story uncomfortably.
For more information on the film, check out the film's Artsploitation page linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic