Between 2007 and 2012, seventy nine teens committed suicide in the small Welsh town of Bridgend. None of them left a note. Most of them knew each other. Most of them were found by their parents. This horrifying reality provides the context for Jeppe Rønde’s new drama BRIDGEND, which follows close on the heels of a documentary about the same thing. Making its Canadian Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, BRIDGEND follows a new arrival, Sara, who moves into town with her father and quickly becomes part of the anarchy element that is typical of the youth here. Played by Hannah Murray (Gilly on Game of Thrones), Sara is a headstrong girl who first looks at the town’s inhabitants like a pack of wild animals. However, with little else to do and with the whole town wrapped up in what seems to be a suicide cult, she has no choice left but to try gain access to their secret world. Her father, played by Steven Waddington, has come to investigate the deaths and what might be behind them. His lackadaisical attitude to his daughter after they arrive shows how little he is prepared for the energy of the town, and when he does try to stop her descent, it is already too late.

Bridgend is a filmmaker’s dream as a set up. The woods and derelict buildings and train tunnels offer sublimely beautiful yet vexing locations for the story to play out. Murray turns in a triumph as a performance, slowly pulled in as her barriers are pulled down brick by brick, first by friendship, then by love, then by fear, then by despair. The script asks a lot out of her and she never disappoints, showing a keen sense of subtlety that she hasn’t showcased yet as Sam’s girlfriend on Game of Thrones.

The central issue with Rønde’s film is it set up very much like a mystery – a detective arrives into town to solve a problem, but that aspect is quickly forgotten. While it is actually a relief to see the problem through Sara’s eyes and experience it on the front lines, the film feels like it never makes it out of the second act.

Of course, at the core of the problem is the reality that Bridgend is still known as Death Town in the UK, and no one has quite figured out why these suicides are happening. The film seems afraid to upset the historical narrative of the actual events. Fine, but if that is the choice, then why make the Waddington’s character a detective, which promises an investigation, and give the audience almost none of that.

In the end, the film plays as an atmospheric homage to the town, and a moment in time that continues to this day. It is a window into a world that we cannot understand – that’s what the film keeps telling us. But if we have no more understanding of it at the end of the film than at the beginning, why even make the film?

Bridgend is a lost opportunity. The film seems to echo the town’s teen characters sentiments ‘you wouldn’t understand, you are an outsider.’ While that is probably true, it doesn’t make for a very compelling narrative.

I was riveted for the first half of the film as Sara got deeper and deeper into this mysterious movement, alas the second half had little to offer. Had Sara’s father been getting closer to cracking the case, only to discover Sara at the center of it, or covering things up, or leaking information, the film could have achieved the much need ‘raising of the stakes’ which never occurs. Instead the film ends as it begins, with striking and unforgettable images, but with no meaning attached.

BRIDGEND screened last night at Fantasia and will screen again on the 17th at 2:45 pm.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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