Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, feature debuts benefit from a star-studded cast that elevates an otherwise just passable script into something noteworthy. The Line is an effective feature debut from young filmmaker Ethan Berger, and while its commentary might be somewhat surface-level, the filmmaking on display is undeniably effective and unsettling.
The film follows the members of a fraternity as their organization is rocked by their increasingly dangerous practices and “traditions.” Although the story of the movie is very straightforward, and deals with a topic we have seen addressed in film many times before, Berger’s approach creates a lean 100-minute thriller.
Although the movie clearly seeks to expose the very real epidemic of hazing, it exists to do little more than disturb. The film’s stance is certainly condemning, and it will leave viewers feeling angry, but the writers fail to dig deep into the solutions — or even causes — of this problem. There are several moments that feel like the argument being made is simply “boys will be boys,” with little attention paid to the other factors that caused hazing to become such a prevalent issue.
Still, Berger along with co-writers Zack Purdo and Alex Russek manage to create an atmosphere that is consistently engaging and unsettling. It’s not quite a horror film, but there are certainly some sequences in the movie that share techniques with the genre, and the result will have viewers on the edge of their seats.
Berger’s directorial style is very accomplished for a first-time filmmaker. The film doesn’t go overly violent with its depictions of hazing, and yet, despite its lack of graphic imagery, it manages to be thoroughly affecting. A lot is left to the mind, and as usual, that can be more unsettling than what we see.
The movie also offers some interesting characterization. One would normally expect the protagonist of a film with this story to be a freshman being hazed, but Austin Abrams’s character who fills this archetype is only a supporting character. Instead, the protagonist is the conflicted president-to-be of the fraternity, played by Alex Wolff.
Wolff’s performance, while playing very much to his usual type, is absolutely devastating. The arc he has — from dislikable arrogance to sympathetic concern — is effective thanks to Wolff’s nuance. Other big names in the supporting cast — Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick), Halle Bailey (The Little Mermaid), Angus Cloud (Euphoria), and John Malkovich — aren’t fully utilized.
The Line might not be a deep exploration of its themes, but it is an effective and unsettling thriller. Thanks to consistently strong performances and sharp pacing, Berger’s film stands out as one of the most exciting debuts of this year’s festival.
The Line screened at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which ran June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.