You may have heard about the headlines, an inexplicable number of suicides in a small Welsh town, all of them teenagers, 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’s also topic of this film, named after that 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 atmospheric than thoughtful, despite 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. In typical slasher fashion, a body count arises when the number of suicides begins to increase. For Sara, each one begins to hit closer and closer to home.
Among the more 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’re still unexplained. It’s no surprise that Bridgend looks and feels like a horror film; that’s how both the media and the public have been depicting it for the past half a decade. Unlike your typical horror film, however, Bridgend seems more character-based, special emphasis is placed on a rift between Dave and his daughter after he discovers the link between the suicides and the girl.
When Sara falls in love with Jamie (Josh O’Connor), several conflicts arise. First is between Sara and her father, who disapproves of the union. And then there’s one between Jamie and his cohorts, who bully and intimidate the young man out of the relationship. This is where Rønde presents a disappointing anticlimax to his proposed mystery. The real life suicides were sprawling with rumours and speculations, 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. Rønde seems to suggest something more transparent and facile.
The director 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, suggested the sometimes true (and sometimes ridiculous) notion that the solution to our great challenges can be right in front of our eyes. Especially effective 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, his understated 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 victims. Birdgend aims for the opposite, minimizing the mystique of the town strange number of suicides to indulge in cold, sobering psychology of depression on its victims. Alas, most of Bridgend remains cold and uninteresting. This slog barely even scratches the surface of Bridgend’s suicides, rather than interpret or explore, it moodily gazes at its victims ennui, barely registering the many theories behind the town’s suicide, be it England’s “kitchen sink” ethos, pathological teenage tribalism and Thatcherian socioeconomic depression.
The town seemed to have left a haunting, lingering effect on Rønde, as it did the world at large, but his arresting sense of place can’t compensate for the lack of content. Much like his actual investigation into the topic, Brigend is well-intentioned but empty and irresolute.