Movies have always held a mirror up to society offering an examination of issues present in the collective consciousness of the population. In many cases Hollywood tends to put a certain spin on the problems in order to make them more palatable to the people buying the tickets. If you want to get a more realistic window into social issues the best placed to turn is the independent film community. One way the Indy director can accomplish this is through a documentary establishing facts or opinions in a typically instructive format. Another way is through a dramatization. A story is crafted ostensibly as fiction is used as a platform to heighten awareness and understanding of the issue under consideration. One recent example that comes across in quite an impressive fashion is ‘Mad World’. The social issue under examination is one that is universal; found in most cultures, across every age demographic and documented among various species in the animal kingdom; bullying. It is a reasonable assumption that everyone has been involved in a bullying situation. While most notable during the school years there are those that feel the need to forcibly dominate others in most workplaces. Although ‘Mad World’ depicts the situation in a youthful context there is no uncertainty that adults will readily relate to the circumstances shown here. One factor that elevates this film from a glorified after school special is it grows beyond a didactic context by weaving the issue into a gripping well played dramatic story. It refrains from trivializing the emotional impact felt by victims of bullies and how emotionally fragile the teen years can be especially in the overly hectic modern world. Instead of trying to over simplify this difficult period of life the film spirals outward from bullying to encompass a broader spectrum of issues relevant to the modern teen. This approach is more complicated but remains closer to the truth of the high school situation. It is a cautionary tale that is enthralling from start to finish making this one of the better treatment of the social dynamic at work in the American high school.
The film follows several teens that for various reasons are ostracized by their peer group. Will (Dylan Vigus) is a natural target for the more aggressive students in his school. He is overweight and normally timid. Not only is his life at school a constant nightmare his home life offers no relief due to an emotionally and physically abusive father (James Peak). Unable to fit in with the other kids in school Will draws the only comfort possible by associating with three out teens branded as misfits; Cory (Gary Cairns), John (Matthew Thompson) and Jarvon (James Lee). Although the primary point of view is provided through Will’s narration each member of the quartet is afforded an opportunity to relate the specifics of his untenable existence. Will has been uprooted by his parent’s divorce forced to contend with a new school and city. Cory is angry at the world exhibiting definite anti-social tendencies; a classic juvenile delinquent. John is culturally adrift. As an African-American youth he is isolated from his ethnic identity by being raised by white adoptive parents. Rounding out the group is Jarvon. He is a disenfranchised straight A student who prefers the psychedelic trip to reality. The four waste their days getting high and generally complaining about their plights. In turn each of them becomes the victim of bullying by the so called mainstream members of the student body. The film’s unexpected conclusion is catalyzed by actions initiated by Jarvon and serve to separate this film from anything a Hollywood studio would be prone to offer.
One of the most amazing things about this film is it is the freshman opus for writer/director Cory Cataldo. He demonstrates a control over every element of the production that is exceptionally rare even with more seasoned filmmakers. This is first evident in the pacing of the movie. The first section is done far slower than usual for a film of this type. This gives Cataldo the opportunity to take his time developing the four central characters carefully although spreading the focus between four primary characters does have the tendency to dilute the impact to some degree. Cataldo offsets nicely by using the four vantage points to allow a broader degree of identification with the audience. He also eschews the necessity to wrap things up with a Hollywood happy ending. In situations like those depicted here it is rare that things work out beneficially for those involved.
The kids here react to their situation by self medicating; numbing themselves to avoid the harsh reality that presses them from all sides. This is far removed from what would be considered the socially acceptable means of coping but regrettably it is one that is commonly taken by many teens. Cataldo has an exceptionally solid grasp of the subject which when combined with when combined with an innate ability as a story teller gives every indication that this man is a filmmaker with an exceptional career ahead of him. His work with cinematographer Brandon Trost and film editor Mitch Rosin provides a visually fascinating film that is tightly built and expertly presented. The story is suitably dark and twisted but it rings true as an honest portrayal of a serious social problem in this country. The news is full of accounts similar to this but this movie puts a human face on it that is unforgettable.