Adventures in Streaming: The Final

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

* be aware: this is a synopsis review, so it is one big spoiler *

The Final (2010) tells the story of a group of high school outcasts who decide to exact revenge on their tormentors.

It begins in a restaurant, where a girl with a burn-scar over half her face experiences stares and whispers from the other patrons. She finally lashes out, saying that she didn’t ask to look that way.

The film then turns to the group of outcasts (Ravi, Emily, Jack, Dane, and Andy) and follows their fairly significant bullying by the “popular” students; we also see each outcast’s home life – none of them have pleasant home lives, their parents being either neglectful, chaotic, distant, or hostile. We meet Kurtis, an agreeable young man who seems to like everyone and to treat them all equally (and kindly). When he witnesses Ravi being bullied, he stands up for Ravi. The outcasts discuss Kurtis, in fact, deciding that he’s a “good guy” and that he should not be allowed to attend “the party”.

“The party” is the site of the outcasts’ revenge, where they get all of their tormentors into the same house in the woods, drug them, and then torture them. Kurtis has shown up after all, so Ravi allows him to escape before the torture begins, and points out that if everyone were like Kurtis, none of the film’s events would be happening.

Kurtis encounters a racist man – Parker – who ties Kurtis up and goes to see if his story about the “party” is true. Parker is ambushed by a trio of students on motorbikes, but he’s able to eliminate two of them; Kurtis frees himself and calls police. By the time the police get to the party-house, however, the outcasts have turned on one another (Dane is particularly touchy, having expressed intense suicidal ideation and deep anger throughout the film). Jack is the only outcast still alive, and kills himself after telling the police that there are “more of us” out there.

Kurtis returns to school, where he recognizes the third motorbike rider; we realize that one of the bullies is the girl from the beginning of the movie – Emily gave her those scars, at a party that several other students did not survive.

On the surface, the story is one we’ve seen quite a bit – the bullied kids, who are always really good people, get back at their aggressors, who are always really bad people, and the aggressors finally see the error of their ways. We see how dismal the bullied kids’ lives are, how unworthy their families are, how mean the meanies can be. We do feel sympathy for the outcasts; we do feel outrage at the bullies’ actions. For anyone who’s been bullied themselves, the notion of revenge can be quite appealing, and the graphic torture of the bullies in the film might even act as a cautionary tale for any real bullies who might be watching.

But Final goes a little deeper into the matter.

We see the outcasts’ negative home lives, but the outcasts themselves aren’t all squeaky clean. Dane especially has so much misdirected rage that it borders on psychopathy; by the end, he’s lashing out in all directions, even at his own friends and allies, in his attempt to stop the pain he feels. He stops caring about revenge or lessons and focuses instead on hurting others for hurting’s sake. Most of the others, too, are so consumed by their pain that they no longer see the bullies as human beings – even though being unable to have compassion is usually described as the problem bullies have.

We don’t necessarily get a deeper look at the bullies, but they are presented more as real people than as stereotypes – during the torture experience, they exhibit concern for their friends’ lives (well, some of them exhibit concern). And the school hasn’t been divided into “us” and “them”, with only bullies and good-guys – Kurtis, among others, is just a regular person, not hurting anyone, not hating anyone, just making his way through school without an agenda.

The bullies are pretty solidly the bad guys … but the other characters aren’t so clearly delineated and compartmentalized. The atmosphere is one of stark realism, so we feel the pain inflicted by the bullies. We don’t like them. But we also can’t quite get swept away on a wave of revenge-porn, because all of the characters are just kids, just people: there’s no particular struggle between good and evil, but rather a grey and protracted conflict between teenagers of all stripes and the many parts of being human that hurt or don’t make sense. Instead of being able to vicariously feel avenged by the actions of the characters, we’re struck by how gritty and pointless it all is, by how important high school feels when really it’s just a small interlude in life, by how much life can suck for even the best of us.

Jack’s warning that there are “more of us” is no doubt true, but the effect isn’t one of chilling realization wherein we contemplate a world full of angry, disaffected outcasts who may finally snap. Instead, the thought that there are more people who feel such a deep pain is just kind of sad – the film has illustrated very well that people in pain, particularly those who don’t feel like anyone hears or cares, will eventually be overcome by those feelings. They’ll lash out at others or at themselves, they’ll feel more and more lost and broken, they’ll feel more and more helpless against the negative forces that seem to press in on them from all sides. Basically, the film shows that bullies and the bullied are all just acting out their anger, hopelessness, and confusion; that neither side has a corner on good or evil; and that so much of the “drama” grown-ups mock about adolescents is a fairly understandable response to a world that doesn’t seem as welcoming and warm as it did when we were small.

There were a few things that didn’t quite mesh with the rest: the families were all so uniformly unconcerned with their children’s well-being that it sort of felt like a ham-handed parade of dysfunctional stereotypes, and Parker’s random racism was out of place in a movie that dealt with a different kind of negative social experience. If the goal was to suggest that even Kurtis – whom everyone liked – had his own problems, then it fell a bit short because of its incongruity. Some of the torture scenes went for the gore-porn vibe, but most of the film went for realism, so there was some conflict there in how the audience was expected to receive the images. And of course, as with most teen-centered works, it’s a bit unlikely that absolutely zero parents were concerned about a teen party in the middle of nowhere.

But overall, the message and its delivery in this film far outweighed these flaws, and the feeling we’re left with at the end is one not so much of vindication or even enjoyment but of sadness and reflection.

 8 out of 10