Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde’s narrative début dramatizes the story of a mysterious rash of teen suicides that actually occurred in the Welsh village of Bridgend between 2007 and 2012. True to its subject matter, Bridgend is quite a dark film.
Sara (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones) moves with her policeman father, Dave (Steven Waddington, The Imitation Game), to the titular village, where he is tasked with solving the mystery of the suicides. Though they’re still mourning the recent loss of her mother, their relationship is strong and affectionate.
Almost immediately, she’s drawn into the society of the village’s teenage population. Being a newcomer, she’s flattered by their quick acceptance, but also disturbed by their peculiarly cultish behavior and insularity. As they drink and carouse and commit acts of rebellion, there’s seemingly no adult authority who cares enough to bring them under control.
And when one of their number commits suicide — a numbingly regular occurrence — they ritualistically howl his or her name into the night sky and strip naked to float silently in the lake. Afterward, they post condolences in a private chat room and wait for the next death. When it comes, the ritual is repeated.
Sara becomes infected by their ennui and begins to withdraw. This horrifies Dave, who seems to be the only adult in town who recognizes the implications and seeks to stop the cycle. Because she’s a passionate equestrienne with a horse of her own, he tries to enroll his daughter in a private riding school some distance away, but she reacts violently, desperate to return to the pack as if it’s become a kind of addiction for her.
Rønde said that he spent six years traveling back and forth to Bridgend, interviewing young residents whose stories helped to craft the screenplay he wrote along with Torben Bech and Peter Asmussen. Many characters are composites drawn from these stories, and the resulting film is as challenging as it is intriguing. The pacing is deliberate, and since the behavior of the teenagers is repetitive and often confounding, some may find their patience wearing thin before the conclusion.
Amplifying the grim subject matter is Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s naturalistic, dark cinematography. In depicting a village in strife, his widescreen camera captures the forlorn neighborhoods and nearby woods in depressingly gray tones — here is a place where even the sun refuses to shine.
Murray delivers an admirable performance as Sara, convincingly portraying the girl’s uncomprehending descent into misery, while Waddington’s desperate attempts to make sense of it all and save his daughter provide an effective counterpoint. Good, too, is Josh O’Connor as Jamie, the vicar’s son, who attempts to rebel against the crushing sadness of the group.
Although set in Wales, Bridgend has a distinctly Nordic feel, both in atmosphere and structure. Relentlessly downbeat and lacking a dramatically satisfying conclusion (which is appropriate because there isn’t one), it’s a film that can be admired for its execution, even as it keeps viewers at arm’s length.
Bridgend will make its SVOD debut on Fandor on Friday, March 6 (available in U.S. and Canada only).