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Tragedy Girls

This is one of those crazy times when the multiplex is loaded with duds and the arthouse is hopping. There are so many fascinating indie films out right now, it was hard picking out just one. So I went with the most obscure choice that was most likely to be gone by next week. It was a great choice.

Tragedy Girls is set in the sleepy Midwest town of Rosedale, where a serial killer has been running loose. But this is not your average slasher flick, as immediately becomes apparent when the sexually promiscuous high school girl kidnaps the slasher. Then she ties him up, locks him in a closet, and proceeds to finish dismembering her date.

The girl in question is Sadie Cunningham, alongside BFF McKayla Hooper (respectively played by veteran mutant badasses Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp). These are the namesake Tragedy Girls, who’ve been chasing social media infamy through chronicling our Rosedale Ripper (Kevin Durand, fully committed to Sparkle Motion and loving every minute). And they’ve captured the Ripper not because they want to stop him — they want to help him.

Our two young ladies are bona fide psychopaths who want to learn the fine art of serial murder from our homicidal maniac. When he politely responds with a threat to skull-fuck these girls in front of their parents (that’s pretty much a direct quotation, no joke), they switch to Plan B: Carry out the murders themselves, pin it on the genuine article, and milk the tragedy for all the fame and attention they can get.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “WHY?!” Well, to start with, we’re talking about high school girls. They need attention, they feel like nothing they do matters, the adults are all useless, the town is boring… you know, the typical teenage ennui. Taken to the most criminally insane conclusion possible.

So naturally they set up a Twitter account and post videos about the Rosedale Ripper, confident that conspiracy theories are great for generating comments and everybody loves a news story with lots of gore and violence. But then a funny thing happens: It turns out that people would actually prefer to live calm and peaceful lives. Everyone is only too eager to ignore anything dangerous or unusual, happy to disregard murder while there’s still a remote possibility that someone was killed by accident. And the local law enforcement are clearly trying to sweep everything under the rug, ostensibly so there won’t be any panicked citizens tampering with the investigation but really because nobody up top wants to rock the boat.

So Sadie and McKayla put more effort into murders that couldn’t possibly be anything else. They set everything up so they’re the center of attention and everyone’s going to @TragedyGirls for all the latest news. And it’s not like anyone can do anything about that — just ask any parent or teacher how easy it is to control what their kids say and do online. Thus they stir up mob rule to act against the complacent sheriff’s department, insisting that action must be taken to find the killer.

You can see how this all starts to go wrong.

For one thing, while the whole “mass paranoia” effect is great for moving traffic in cyberspace, it has serious effects in real space that could be dangerous beyond anyone’s power to control. For another thing, the real Rosedale Ripper is locked up in a closet somewhere, and there’s no telling how he could screw things up for the two girls who knocked him out. Which brings me to the third point: Our protagonists are self-absorbed, myopic, and sociopathic, on top of being teenaged girls. Sure, they’re loving best friends now, but what happens when their individual need for attention spirals out of control, and ego takes a backseat to friendship? And they could both implicate each other — or even kill each other — for their involvement in a murder spree?

To the film’s credit, we’re never expected to sympathize with these girls for even a second. The movie never lets us forget that families are grieving and a community is in shambles because flesh-and-blood people are getting killed. Which only makes our protagonists look even more awful, because they don’t care about any of this so long as they keep trending and it doesn’t affect them personally. As we know it eventually has to, and that’s when things really get fun.

In case it isn’t already clear, this movie is bananas. Its sick and twisted sense of humor makes it an uproarious horror send-up while also serving as an incisive social media satire. And what’s really impressive is that this movie genuinely seems to know what it’s talking about, which puts it at a distinct advantage over such ignorant failures as Nerve and The Circle. In terms of intelligence, this is easily on par with Ingrid Goes West, and a great deal funnier to boot.

Hildebrand and Shipp do a phenomenal job anchoring this movie. They are so much fun to hate individually, and their chemistry together is incredibly good. We’ve also got brief yet memorable turns from such comedic talents as Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson. Kevin Durand is tremendous fun to watch, and Timothy Murphy does surprisingly good work as the local sheriff.

There’s really only one weak link in the cast, but goddamn is it a doozy. Jack Quaid plays Jordan, who’s all at once the sheriff’s son, the best friend/love interest for Sadie, the editor who puts together the Tragedy Girls’ videos, and the straight man commenting on all the madness happening around him. This character has a lot of crucial roles in the story, and he fails at most of them because Quaid’s chemistry with Hildebrand is nil. She’s doing the best she can to salvage this whole thing, but her efforts only go so far. Even worse, Quaid is older than everyone else in the cast by a good four years. That makes a HUGE difference when he’s playing a high schooler next to actors who are barely out of their teens. I don’t care if they put in some throwaway line about how Jordan was held back a year, he still looks too old by half to be in this picture.

Otherwise, this is a solid movie. Yes, it’s obsessed with cliches from teen movies, horror films, rom-coms, and so on; but the filmmakers are clever enough to put their own spin on these cliches. The film is more than self-aware enough that it’s a movie about the characters’ superficiality, rather than a superficial movie. The characters’ transparent nature can get obnoxious at times, but it helps that there are so many different checks and balances in place for the characters to call each other out on their bullshit. This makes for enough dramatic tension to sustain the movie, and often results in some neat social commentary.

Put simply, it’s a horror film made for those young whippersnappers who can reference the Saw films and Final Destination at the drop of a hat, but don’t know Dario Argento from George Romero. And it makes fun of such people for that.

Tragedy Girls is intelligent, subversive, hip, stylish, comical fun. It’s a decent cinematic commentary on social media, succeeding where so many others have failed and not nearly enough have tried. The comedic timing is on point, the characters (with one wretched, horrible exception) are all wonderfully cast, and the 21st-century self-aware sensibility is fantastic.

I would happily recommend this, especially as a companion piece to Detention. Both are wickedly intelligent, shockingly funny, modern and subversive horror/comedies that skewer established teen movie tropes with gleeful abandon. Watch either one first, but definitely watch both.

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