The plot: I’m not sure the world was crying out for another film in the vein of Kids, Bully, or Havoc—a genre of entertainment we’ll charitably dub Kids Do The Most Fucked-Up Things! But that’s what We is, and it since it’s not bound by any of the pesky sense of decorum you might find in American movies—even those with graphic sex or violence—what you see is way, way more fucked up. If you were to ask me who this movie is made for, there’s not really a great way of saying, “God, nobody, I hope,” yet here we are.
We (Wij in the original Dutch-Belgian release, with the pretentious subtitle “A Summer Odyssey In Four Parts”) tells the story of eight teenagers (underage, it needs to be stressed, though the film uses the tried-and-true tactic of having them portrayed by actors roughly a decade older)—four boys and four girls—who decide to spend their summer vacation making explicit porn and uploading it to a website; having the girls prostitute themselves with local men; and generally behaving in ways you would never, ever want kids to behave. After one of the girls dies, they recruit two more impressionable girls and drug and abuse them into becoming participants. At one point, they steal a dog and drag it along the street on their bikes, before tying it to a set of train tracks. Yeah, it’s that kind of unpleasant.
The movie is broken into four parts, each from a different character’s point of view, as they recount the events of the summer from a time in the future when they’re involved with a trial of some sort—though who’s on trial isn’t clear until the closing minutes. Each section begins on the same day and recounts the same events through their shifting perspectives, beginning with the most normal and empathetic character and descending in order of repulsive personalities before concluding with a kid so cartoonishly evil, he makes Jack Nicholson in The Departed look like a sweet old businessman.
It starts with Simon, a nice-seeming kid who falls in love with one of the girls, Femke, but who quickly loses his taste for all the porn and prostitution and quits the group. He recounts how they started off like normal kids—riding bikes, sharing crushes, finding an abandoned trailer home in the countryside where they threw parties and whiled away the hours. The constant question of how they could make a lot of money soon leads where you’re hoping it won’t: Within 15 minutes of the film’s start, they’re playing a “game” that involves the girls pulling down their pants and trying to guess what object is being stuck up their asshole. Sounds fun! Three minutes later, they’re making their own porn. If you weren’t already put off, this is the moment when you lose the desire to invest in any emotional arc the movie tries to pull off. Or any desire at all, really. It’s repugnant.
From there, it’s a spiral circling the drain of increasingly repulsive behavior. Part two is Ruth, who at least still has morals, and despite recruiting two innocent girls into their teenage brothel, feels guilty when the girls accidentally cause a car accident by going bottomless on a freeway overpass as a joke. Femke dies, and Ruth’s breaking point comes when they try to induce a miscarriage in one of the new girls by punching her in the stomach. Part three is Liesl, who justifies her vile deeds by insisting it’s art, that she wants to push people out of their comfort zones and confront “real life.” When they learn the people who died and were injured in the car crash were a mother and two small children, she says it was their own fault. She, too, eventually quits after Femke’s death, but only after insisting that if they “don’t go bigger, smarter, and further” in their horrific acts, “I’m done.” Yikes.
It ends with the story of Thomas, a kid so appalling that he practically twirls a cartoon mustache after every act. He frames his testimony to the court through the false claim that the town’s mayor was behind it all: The porn site he started, the brothel he initiated, blackmailing the men who visited the brothel. And then we learn how Femke dies: It’s during one of those stupid “guess what’s going in your ass” games, when Thomas inserts an icicle and Femke freaks out and hits her head on a rock. They burn her body and pretend they found it that way. Thomas beats a random kid on the street. He drugs and rapes one of the girls he recruits, then carves “whore” into her skin just below her belly button. He pisses on her when she asks him for help. In case it needed to be said, he’s the one who ties the dog to the train tracks. He concocts an alibi pinning everything on the mayor, but in the final seconds, it’s implied that maybe, just maybe, the mayor abused him as a child, and that’s what led to his behavior. That’s awful, but also: Fuck you, Thomas, I don’t want to watch a movie about your awful ass. Roll credits, and roll me rolling the hell away from ever watching another frame of this disaster again.
Over-the-top box copy: “A strikingly explicit spectacle of millennial depravity,” goes the blurb, which is actually pretty accurate. The back cover description ends by comparing it to “the films of Harmony Korine, Larry Clark, and Lars von Trier,” which is only true in the sense that those directors have also made movies about terrible people, but with roughly 100% more justification. (Well, Korine and von Trier, anyway.)
The descent: Look, I’m no more immune to the lurid allure of a “must be seen to be believed!” ad campaign than anyone else. In fact, I’m generally a fan of the kids-behaving-badly plot, which is what led me to pick this latest release from shock ’n’ schlock distribution house Artsploitation Films. And apparently this is based on a novel of the same title, which I could see doing a little better at giving purpose to all this gross stuff. So please, learn from my mistake: Caveat emptor.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Maybe one of these kids is a Selena Gomez-level star in Belgium, but not as far as I can tell. They’re probably recent film-school grads who thought this was gonna really blow some minds, man.
The execution: Here’s the thing: It’s a fairly well-directed and well-acted endeavor, which only adds to the disgust at what a waste it was having talented folks spend so much time on what’s essentially I Dare You To Care About This: The Movie. I understand why they start with the least objectionable character and devolve into the worst one—you want to avoid people walking out or turning off the film 20 minutes in—but all it does is increase the irritation that you had to sit through the same series of events, only getting worse, and worse, and worse.
The film begins with one of those odious “based on true events” claims, which is the cinematic equivalent of, “We heard an anecdote that sounded plausible at the bar the other night and went from there.” There are so many scenes that I’m not going to include here, for the obvious reason that they’re actively repugnant and/or just porn when taken out of context. In fact, one of the weirdest things about the movie is that the subtitles actually clean up the dialogue. Here’s a scene where Ruth’s mom busts her for sneaking out to a club, and you can watch as the translation doesn’t include her mom repeatedly saying “fucking.”
The film’s four sections progress from the most generic to the most cringe-worthy. Simon’s version of events sounds more akin to a lot of other “burn too bright” narratives, from Risky Business to The Bling Ring, in that it features voice-over about how much money they made and spent, how large they were living. But no one else even references that; according to the other characters, they bought some scooters, and then proceeded to steal a dog. Not exactly Belgium’s version of Tony Montana. And while that disparity in their stories is intentional—the movie wants its unreliable narrators to leave you wondering who is misremembering—it sometimes feels jarring, like they just thought of something that also happened, so here it is.
A lot of the film’s speech comes from the voice-overs, but there are occasionally scenes where things play out without the benefit of hindsight commentary. Which would be fine, except that it means you’re now and then greeted by a line of dialogue so bad, no teenager would ever be caught dead saying something so stupid. Here’s Simon responding to a question from his girlfriend, Femke, about how their sex life is for him. If you can read it without cringing, you’re a more tolerant soul than me.
It’s not until the last section, featuring Thomas, that the movie goes from unpleasant to outright comically repellant. You know how sometimes, in silly action movies, the villain will become so enamored of their evil actions that they actually start laughing? Thomas is like that, but if you replaced “laughing” with “abusing girls repeatedly.” He sucks as a person, but more importantly, he sucks to watch. He’s introduced lying in bed jerking off, which is then roughly what he does, metaphorically speaking, in every scene that follows, including one in which he pisses on a girl who comes to him for help, shivering, in the cold nighttime rain. What a strikingly explicit spectacle of millennial depravity!
There’s a certain genre of horror that exists mostly to see if it can actively gross out an audience to such a degree they have to turn it off. (See: The Human Centipede et al.) But this is much worse: a type of drama that thinks it can bombard you with awful thing after awful thing, all in the supposedly non-prurient interest of a hard-hitting look at how much kids suck these days. Wannabe filmmakers: You are not Pasolini. You will not be making your version of Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom. It will just be awful, and no one will want to watch it.
Chances it will rise from obscurity: There’s always a market for “I dare you to watch this” stuff, and by that metric, We is pretty bad. Still, it’s also just, you know, bad.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Not a one. This is as barebones as a Blu-ray release gets. Perhaps everyone involved came to their senses?