'The Line' review: Alex Wolff and Halle Bailey star in irresistibly sinister college thriller

‘The Line’ review: Alex Wolff and Halle Bailey star in irresistibly sinister college thriller

It’s hard not to think of Donna Tartt’s novel The secret story while watching Ethan Berger’s first feature film, The line. Richard Papen, the protagonist of Tartt’s sharp and propulsive novel, bears a certain resemblance to Tom (Alex Wolff), the main character of Berger’s gripping thriller. Like Richard, Tom is a scholarship student who finds himself somersaulting with an elite segment of campus. The classic cabal of majors, organized around the adoration of a mysterious professor, is what attracted Richard; Greek life, with its allure of brotherly loyalty and access to alumni, is what bewitches Tom. Both characters are ashamed of their blue-collar roots and, in a futile attempt to fit in, mask and make fun of their pasts.

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The line follows Tom as he learns the same devastating lessons Richard did. Berger, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alex Russek, anticipates tragedy, which means we don’t need to piece together a mystery. Instead, we can closely observe the behavior of the young people of the KNA, the fictitious brotherhood at the center of the drama. Many of them are scions of American nobility. Their parents are popular politicians and well-connected businessmen whose influence permeates campus life. These kids—and really, they’re kids when you think about it—enter collegiate life armed with the security that this heritage affords. So what exactly are they trying to prove?

The line

The bottom line

Fascinating even when it doesn’t go deep.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Alex Wolff, Lewis Pullman, Halle Bailey, Austin Abrams, Angus Cloud
Director: Ethan Berger
Screenwriters: Ethan Berger, Alex Russo

1 hour and 40 minutes

As with most movies about the perils of Greek life, the answers are rooted in misogyny. The KNA island community has an unhealthy appetite for belonging and a desperate need for approval. The line opens in 2014 with Tom’s mother (Cheri Oteri) calling him out on his attitude. A “mock Forest Gump” accent, nonstop talk of his fraternity’s presidential alumni, and creeping right made him a worse breakfast buddy; they are signs of Tom’s slow transformation. Later, at dinner with his friend Mitch (Bo Mitchell) and Mitch’s parents, Tom puts on his fake Southern accent and lies about where he worked over the summer.

The lineTom’s interests – the pressures of Greek life, the toxicity of hypermasculinity, the corrosiveness of white privilege – play out in the interactions between Tom and his family, his friends, and, later, his crush, Annabelle (a Halle underutilized Bailey). Wolf (Hereditary) impresses, deftly modulating his performance so that we can’t land too easily in an emotional pitch: excessive sympathy or outright wrath. Tom wants to adjust to that, to overcome his class anxieties by transcending them, and KNA offers, at first, the easiest path.

As a sophomore, Tom is now on the other side of the hazing rituals. A new class of freshmen means he gets a chance to prove his proficiency and loyalty to the chapter president, Todd (an insanely good Lewis Pullman). When the school bans hazing activities from campus, members should tread carefully. But Mitch, Tom’s closest friend and roommate, gets into a fight with pawnbroker Gettys O’Brien (Austin Abrams) and adopts a more vengeful style of hazing, making him a liability. To side with Mitch, a pariah of the fraternity, would be to put one’s reputation at risk. Not defending his friend, however, proves just as dangerous within his own class (whose members are played by Graham Patrick Martin and Angus Cloud, among others).

Hazing-related deaths and injuries in the United States aren’t compiled into a single database, but the frequency with which they make the news is chilling. The line explores this reality convincingly and, with the assistance of cinematographer Stefan Weinberger, Berger shows how easily these situations become fatal. His fresh directing style treats hazing scenes with a clinical edge, turning them into ethnographic studies.

That distance doesn’t help when it comes to The lineThe most interesting thread: how the fraternity activates Tom’s socioeconomic anxieties. The sophomore endures a lot of humiliation to gain approval: his olive skin prompts his fraternity brothers to refer to him as a “jihadist”; they mock his interest in Annabelle because she is black, she does not participate in Greek life or adhere to their beauty standards. He tries, meekly, to defend himself, but the rules for acceptance always change. Tom’s inability to keep up becomes the very mark of his outsider status.

It would have been even more compelling, then, for Berger to dig deeper into Tom’s life, to explore his need to belong. His conversations with Annabelle are, initially, a way of doing that, but they go nowhere and his character ends up feeling irrelevant. As the film nears its predictable conclusion, questions about Tom’s desires and motivations continue to arise. Without answers, The line it ends on a deflated and strangely undemanding note.

The stakes are higher for this working-class kid chasing his version of the American Dream, and my mind drifted back to Richard at the end of The secret story. Realizing how much trouble he could be in, the novel’s protagonist begins to panic and considers his situation: “What did it matter, if they didn’t graduate, if they had to go home?” he wonders about his friends in the classical Kabbalah Major. “At least they had homes to go to. They had trust funds, allowances, dividend checks, doting grandmothers, well-related uncles, loving families. College for them was just a way station, a sort of youth diversion. But this was my main chance, the only one.’