You may have seen the headlines, an inexplicable multitude of suicides in a small Welsh town, all of them teenagers with no notes left behind. Between 2007 and 2012, Bridgend was afflicted by 79 suicides, the majority of which were teenagers who were found hanged. It also happens to be the topic of this film, which is named after the very town. Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde studied the teenagers of Bridgend and wrote a script that amalgamated their life stories into a single case study. The results in the film are sketchy, but no film is obligated to validate itself; the best ones find engaging ways to interpret its material. Bridgend certainly does so with dreary natural landscapes that loom oppressively over the small town. The natural images are stunning, they’re not particularly beautiful but strikingly bleak and atmospheric. Rønde’s adherence to tone and form are particularly admirable, considering the premise of the film banks on its ripped from the headlines sensationalism. Yet, Bridgend feels more thoughtful, never going out of its way to exploit the suicides or tragedy of its central characters.
Strangely, the premise of Bridgend resembles less a true crime and more a horror film. A girl and her police officer father, Dave (Steven Waddington), move to the small town, where the latter hopes to crack the mystery of these suicides. Subsequently, the new girl, Sara (Hannah Murray), befriends a group of schoolchildren, all of whom are directly connected to the victims. In typical slasher fashion, a body count arises when the number of suicides begins to increase, and for our heroine Sara, each one begins to hit closer and closer to home.
One of the interesting aspects of the Bridgend suicides is that to this day, accounting for the sheer volume (in such a low population), the matching age demographic and the consistency of these suicides, they are still unexplained. It’s no surprise that Bridgend looks and feels like a horror film; that’s how both the media and the public has been seeing it for the past half a decade. Unlike your typical horror film, however, Bridgend seems to be character based, emphasizing the relationship of its characters, particularly a rift that grows between Dave and his daughter when he discovers that her social circle is linked to the suicides. That’s the key distinction Bridgend makes between being labelled a true crime and horror. It’s neither; it’s a flat out character drama. Rønde is especially clever in how he depicts a father who, so intent on finding an answer to the suicides, can’t even see his daughter drifting from his world in both mind and spirit.
Less compelling is how Rønde depicts the plight of his middle class teens as something so simple as one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel. When Sara falls in love with Jamie (Josh O’Connor), multiple conflicts arise. First is Sara with her father, who disapproves of the union. And Jamie with his friends, who bully and intimidate him out of the relationship. He presents a disappointing anticlimax, an assumption of outsider influence that minuses environment, internalized conflict and self-harm as factors in any of the suicides. The real life suicides were sprawling with rumours and speculation, the notions that a “suicide cult” or a “malaise of life in a backwater” were brought up, all had become perfectly reasonable conclusions, considering the unreasonable circumstances. What else could explain it?
Rønde had studied the teens of Bridgend for six years and to this day the suicides haven’t stopped, meaning that Rønde’s trail went cold, and his excursions had become something of an anticlimax in itself. Yet, his conclusions, however cold and irresolute, were undeniably honest suggesting to us that sometimes the solution to our great challenges were right in front of our eyes.
However flawed and misguided Rønde’s choices and finalization in his film were, what proceeds in the film’s final two minutes are some of the most harrowing and evocative cinematic moments of the year. Sparing the precious details, the entire sequence is a visual poem of a transitory post-mortem procession freed from the clutches of the material world where everything ravages to an eventual cinder. Particularly great in the film are Hannah Murray, of Game of Thrones and Skins fame, who expresses moody power with simple looks and gestures, all whilst giving us a compelling portrait on corrupted youth. Steve Waddington too excels, hisunderstated performance defies the conventions and clichés of absentee parent stereotypes with silenced rage lurking beneath a veneer of self-control.
Bridgend works to deconstruct the coldness of true crime, which in itself often rejects the emotions of the crime’s suffering victims. Bridgend is itself a true crime, not of statutes or laws but of raw human conditioning. It’s a piercing statement on human behaviour, sometimes it can feel inauthentic, even evoking a vague Shakespearean tragedy at one point. Rønde, however, never really stumbles too far into his own conceits to truth-telling. Most of Bridgend is interpretative, and muddying through dead-ends only to find more mysteries may seem like a pointless time to spend an hour and a half, but maybe like Jeppe Rønde you’ll find something meaningful in this little town as he did. Something transcending news headlines, journalistic intrigue and urban legends.