Men screaming songs together joyfully, the elation bursting forth from chapped lips, bloodshot eyes, camouflaged cheeks and the strength of brute force. That is how Ethan Berger’s “The Line” greets its audience, rip-raring and ready to go in the spirit of brotherhood, camaraderie, and community, the kind that can make or break a soul too delicate for the molding.
In this new look into the dedication to the fraternity lifestyle, tradition is warped and tainted into something treacherous and wrong—and much of that tonal excellence is achieved by Berger’s top-notch cast, an ensemble led by the enigmatic and skilled Alex Wolff.
“The Line” follows Wolff’s Tom, a Southern college student who takes the foundations of brotherhood seriously within his frat, Kappa nu Alpha, or as they affectionately call it: KnA. With that comes the promise of social equity and connections throughout their post-college life, so it’s worth taking seriously according to Tom. But once the regularly scheduled hazing of a pledge goes horribly wrong, he is forced to question what he really wants out of life and if the frat aligns with those needs.
Wolff continues to prove his status as an actor to watch and it continues to puzzle me how he consistently flies so far under the radar when his work is this compelling. He is the backbone of “The Line” without question, anchoring the film with an understated and subtle performance that sees his character fluctuate between the facade he wears as a frat member and who he truly is.
The audience gets a fully shaped image of Tom through Wolff’s performance, immersed so deeply into his psyche that we can anticipate his movements as he goes. Because of that, it makes his arc somewhat predictable, particularly the way he responds to what goes on as the frat goes down a darker spiral—but that is actually an asset rather than a detractor because of the depth he brings.
The “Hereditary” star nearly meets his match in costar Austin Abrams, who plays the self-assured and suave pledge Gettys O’Brien. They have a palpable chemistry that fuels Tom throughout the film in a somewhat positive way, though it wreaks havoc on his brutish friend, Bo Mitchell’s Mitch, who retaliates against Gettys whenever possible. Abrams plays Gettys exactly as he should be: a charismatic mystery, who is all bark and no bite, a smokescreen of a frenemy disguised as a real prospect.
Abrams crafts the pledge into a sympathetic character, one the audience can’t help but be drawn to and like. It’s smart casting because the young actor—who previously played the two-faced sleazeball Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie hooks up with on season one of “Euphoria”—has already proven himself to have the chops to ebb and flow from good guy to asshole with convincing ease. Abrams’ performance both compliments Wolff’s, yet also stands apart in highlighting both of their dramatic strengths.
“The Little Mermaid” star Halle Bailey, for all the charm and allure she brings to this role, is completely wasted by the film’s script, also penned by Berger alongside Alex Russek. Wolff’s Tom tells his mother at the beginning of the film that “relationships are everything”—which, yes, is initially about fraternities themselves, but the film squanders what becomes arguably his most important relationship: the one he builds with Bailey’s Annabelle.
She doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to be shaped into a character of true substance, and when she does spend time with Tom she functions as more of a manic pixie dream girl-esque archetypal placeholder than anything else. It’s not her fault; Bailey is a natural actor who does the best with what she’s been given in this case.
On the whole, Berger’s directorial impulses shine much brighter than his writer’s pen. He creates compelling tableaus and invokes smart, skilled composition. But while the audience is taking in the striking visuals the film’s characters are often spouting expository and clunky dialogue. It feels as though the filmmaker has a better handle on his directorial eye than his writing impulses, but considering this is a debut there’s a lot of good meat to go off of here.
Berger clearly worked seamlessly alongside cinematographer Stefan Weinberger and editor Ted Feldman to invoke a sharp sense of eeriness that blankets the film tonally. The dark color palette gives the movie an ominous feel from the first moments. Because of the way the film is shot, the viewer is on edge immediately, waiting for something bad to happen. The visuals are much stronger than the text, but both elements come together to produce a worthy start to something that could be more cohesive down the line, perhaps as Berger hones his craft for a sophomore feature.
“The Line” falls flat when it comes to capturing the harsh truths of fraternity tradition and allegiance. Sure, the film’s main character questions himself and his actions at all the right moments, but the build-up to that realization isn’t as strong as it could be. Watching this film, it’s impossible to not think of others who have tackled this subject better, namely the Nick Jonas vehicle “Goat” that played the festival circuit in 2016. While Berger’s film is full of solid ideas surrounding how masculine loyalty meshes with Greek life, the story he builds just doesn’t pack nearly as much of a punch as the film sets up for.
“The Line” doesn’t meet the moment it tries to create and the result is half-baked enough for anyone to disappointedly drop out of rush week.