Set within a typically raucous fraternity at a fictional college, Ethan Berger’s “The Line” foretells where it’s headed early on when the school administrator warns of repercussions if a hazing is performed. Consider Chekhov’s gun cocked from that point: Audiences can guess what awaits, though the lead-up to the inevitable is lively and compelling, while also affording a slew of rising actors a chance to display their talent.
Written by Berger and Alex Russek, “The Line” focuses on Tom (Alex Wolff), a sophomore striving to overcome his impoverished background who believes that belonging to a fraternity is a chance for opportunities and connections. Things look promising when he’s picked by the fraternity’s president, Todd (Lewis Pullman), as a potential successor. He starts seeing an attractive fellow student (Halle Bailey). But trouble starts when a new pledge, Gettys (Austin Abrams), decides to make an enemy of Tom’s best friend, Mitch (Bo Mitchell). Since Gettys is one of Todd’s favorites, Tom finds himself caught in the middle.
When the frats gather together, they are constantly trash-talking each other, with casual misogyny and homophobia lacerating practically every put-down. These scenes aren’t exactly fun to watch but are appropriately incisive, as the young men perform for one another: performing masculinity, performing coolness, performing disdain of anyone who’s not part of their team. There’s always loud music in the background, making what they say hard to decipher — not that it matters, since the context is clear. Their threats have a veneer of humor about them, though all this bottled energy suggests a disturbing capacity for violence.
Wolff, who’s had showcase supporting roles in “Hereditary” and “Pig,” has the spotlight to himself this time. The actor gives a focused, attention-grabbing performance, working from the outside-in, with an affected long-voweled voice — called “Forrest Gump” by his mother, played by Cheri Oteri — and measured, studied pose and walk. As Tom’s world crumbles, Wolff adapts his performance, which becomes more raw, adding sensitivity and disillusionment. That voice is also sported by Pullman, and when they talk to each other, Tom’s inspiration and adulation become apparent. Also clear are these two characters’ utter inexperience and misunderstanding of the world. They are just posturing, as the actors convey the utter fear they feel below that faux-authoritative surface.
Making for a fitting antagonist is Abrams, who brings a careless insouciance to his character. Every line is dropped with assured arrogance. Later, when he goads his enemies by making all kinds of suggestive sexual gestures as he dances to The Wanted’s “Glad You Came” at a party, the audience knows this can’t end well. In a cameo role as an influential and powerful parent, John Malkovich gives his brief scenes sinister foreboding, accentuating the film’s ominous atmosphere.
Bailey (now the film’s biggest star, owing to her leading role in “The Little Mermaid”) has only a few scenes as the requisite love interest. It’s a pleasant diversion to see Tom more relaxed as he tentatively falls in love, and Bailey’s understated but charismatic performance shows why he would be with this particular woman. While the character ought to serve as a counterpoint to the toxic fraternity scene, providing Tom with a different worldview, the relationship is not fully explored and ends up being muted and trivial to the plot.
Working with editor Ted Feldman, Berger finds a kinetic rhythm. Instead of trying to say too much, as some first-timers do, the director tells a specific story with a knowing authentic feel for the environment in which it’s set — though his targets remain obvious and easy: Rich powerful people are above the law, young men are imprisoned by macho traditions they never examine and the circle will go on. While “The Line” doesn’t offer an especially unique take on this milieu, it plays well and acts as a solid showcase for its young cast.