A group of college freshmen pledge an exclusive fraternity but soon realize there's more at stake than they could have ever imagined.
Phillip Andre Botello
Aaron Dalla Villa
You’ve heard the old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, right?
Well, that certainly applies to films which on the surface, appear that they’ll be shallow and for a more easy-going film crowd. In other words – simple and cliché.
So when I briefly perused the log-line for the new horror flick, Pledge, I frankly wasn’t expecting much.
What I did get, was a 75-minute, taut horror/thriller – filled to the brim with interesting characters, fantastic performances from the large ensemble and some great twists and turns.
If I had to do a quick pitch of the film’s overall idea and tone, I’d say it’s an uber-violent version of Revenge of the Nerds. Intrigued?
College freshmen Justin (Zachery Byrd), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and David (writer Zack Weiner) are the nerdiest of the nerds on campus. Following David’s intense research into the best parties and the most impressive fraternities to check out – the threesome end up pledging to a very exclusive, very secret organization. Joining two other excited and naive pledges named Ben (Joe Gallagher) and Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers), they spend a long weekend at the frat house, where they experience some serious initiation rituals – headed by Max (Aaron Dalla Villa). But how much humiliation and pain will the threesome tolerate to find acceptance and popularity? And is there more going on than just the usual “boys will be boys” hazing?
The film is full of fun details, if you’re paying attention. But nothing is more telling (and perhaps heartbreaking) as the film’s very last moment, involving a fraternity pin. The dialogue and the story-telling (and yes, those details) are quite smart. And again – for a raucous college fraternity movie – this intelligent writing is a genuine surprise.
The key to the film’s success, is the quick and effortless introduction to our three leads. Within moments, you’ll realize how much you like these guys. They try so hard, they just want to be part of the in-crowd, and if you don’t automatically identify with one (if not all) of them, you must have lived a very blessed adolescence. You’ll feel bad for them as they make fools of themselves and as they fall into obvious traps – all in the name of peer acceptance.
It’s been a problem of mine – when watching and then reviewing other films in the genre – that if audience sympathies are not sparked at the film’s outset, then it’s an uphill battle to keep an audience right there with the protagonists.
That’s simply not a problem here. And when writing a good story – in my honest opinion – if you’ve hooked your viewers by painting solid pictures of your characters and their journeys – then your success rate (unless you really mess something up along the way) can’t help but push toward 100%.
You getting where I’m going here? Pledge sets it all up just right, and then bombards you with nastiness, some almost torture porn (it’s rough – but as I’ve stated before, if it’s justified within the tale – I’ll accept it) and what I felt were real reactions from real people.
The humor is spot-on, and it was a joy to hear the packed audience at this year’s Screamfest (where the film held its US Premiere) genuinely laughing at the awkward interactions between the boys and their “betters”. Of note, is David’s “discussion” with two fraternity boys – talking about some random girl. David’s terrible interjections – trying to get in on the conversation – will have you laughing your ass off, that is when you’re not cringing with embarrassment – yes, for a fictional character.
Damn, how you feel for these guys.
What’s equally impressive about Pledge, are the performances. There’s a lot going on, even in the secondary characters. Each actor embodies their character with teenaged awkwardness and authentic reactions. Even the protagonists – the frat brothers hazing our leads – imbue their performances with hesitation, frustration and doubt – something which makes these characters (despite some of their actions) quite genuine. In a horror film like this, it’s rare to get a decent glimpse into the thoughts of those opposite the protagonist (s). These details make for a true (and perhaps overlooked by many audience members) highlight in a film already full of greatness.
I’d have to give a leg up to Zack Weiner in what is basically the lead role of David. His best moment comes when the group is impolitely kicked out of a fraternity keggar early in the film. There’s a break in his “it’s all good” stubborn exterior and he storms out of the place after being offered a beer for the road – just in order to get him out of there. He bitingly says that he doesn’t want their beer, and it’s a true moment showing David’s absolute frustration at not being able to crack the code of the cool kids.
With not a complaint to be found, the film took a spot in my “Best of Fest” wrap-up for this year’s Screamfest – finding placement in the top five feature films.
The film also won two awards at the closing night ceremony of Screamfest, including trophies for Best Director – Daniel Robbins and for Best Editing.
And finally – the film is actually quite powerful. Out of all the imagery, great performances and characters, nothing will stick with you more than the aforementioned detail involving a fraternity pin. It’s so delicious, so heart-breaking and so smart – it’s the most well-done moment in a very well-done film. Yes, I’ve already discussed this, but it’s so special, it bears repeating.
With a smart and savvy script – rich with genuine characters and the matching dialogue and a breathless pace full of unexpected twists and turns – I have zero hesitation in offering up a very high recommendation.
With Pledge, you can see Revenge of the Nerds in a whole new, ultra-violent light.
Actually – if you took the sequence of Lewis and Gilbert entering the Alpha Beta house to be hazed (involving humiliation and the potential for nastiness) and took it a few steps further – that would be Pledge. It’s a fascinating take on the usual college/fraternity movies.
It was also recently revealed that Pledge was picked up by distributor IFC Midnight (directly following its premiere at Screamfest) and is scheduled for release to the public sometime in early 2019.