'The Line' - Tribeca Film Festival
Ethan Berger’s tumultuous fraternity thriller is a biting condemnation of Southern frat culture.
I went into Ethan Berger’s fraternity thriller “The Line” with a heavy dose of skepticism. Attempting to create a truthful depiction of Southern fraternity culture, something so bizarre, specific, and insular, is no easy feat. But Berger is up to the difficult task, injecting damning truths into a tale of dangerous ideology and blind loyalty to tradition.
Much of the film hinges on Alex Wolff’s portrayal of Tom, a lower-middle-class student who throws himself headfirst into his southern college’s fraternity, Kappa nu Alpha, clearly motivated by the opportunities and social capital it will provide him. Tom is the frontrunner for the frat’s next president because of his commitment, going so far as to inhabit a faux Southern drawl. The accent could’ve derailed the entire thing, and at the beginning, I was a little concerned by Wolff’s jarringly intense Southern accent, but it’s quickly revealed, through his mother calling out the absurdity of it, that Tom’s accent is a sham, one he’s assumingly put on to fully blend into fraternity culture. With this knowledge, the bold accent not only clicks but greatly elevates the film’s authenticity. This specific brand of Southern accent consists of an unnaturally deep vocal register and a dramatic country drawl, one that anyone who has been around Southern frat culture will recognize. The voice is a powerful, constant reminder that Tom’s fraternity brother persona is a performative means of survival for him, one to get by and blend into a culture governed by the old money and power of the Southern upper class.
Tom finds it increasingly difficult to perform the role of a blindly loyal frat bro, as he witnesses increasing toxicity, violence, and hate from his brothers. His best friend and frat brother, Mitch (a scary-good Bo Mitchell) is constantly made fun of for his weight. Tom falls for classmate Annabelle (an unfortunately underused Halle Bailey), who his brothers make fun of, taunting him for being seen with a “Black lesbian.” These instances challenge Tom to question what he is a part of and where his loyalty truly lies, and Wolff conveys this inner turmoil with palpably heavy conviction.
The primary instigator of hate is the new pledge Gettys, played with ominous and intimidating allure by Austin Abrams. Abrams continues to impress in smaller indie roles, but this might be his best work yet. Gettys is a fascinatingly layered antagonist - he mocks Mitch’s weight and questions his sexuality, knowing it will strike a nerve. He sees Mitch as inferior and therefore refuses to participate in the power structure that requires pledges to submit fully to the brothers. What makes this conflict so fascinating is the nuances at play - Gettys’ entitlement allows him to see through the ridiculousness of the hazing practices. He refuses to abide by the traditions, at one point pleading with his fellow pledges to stand up against a ridiculous hazing ritual. His indignation only infuriates Mitch more, and Tom finds himself smack in the middle of the increasing tension. Eventually being pushed to choose a side, he goes to Gettys’s dorm room to confront him about his treatment of Mitch and his lack of participation in the fraternity traditions.
This confrontation backfires colossally, fuelling the storm of sizzling tension that ignites in the film's final third. Gettys doubles down on his behavior, leading to a violence-fueled and hazing-filled retreat where things come to an explosive, fatal head. The film's only real fumble comes with Tom’s relationship with Annabelle. Their relationship is never quite explored to its fullest potential, a shame when it was such a significant factor in Tom’s internal turmoil about fraternity culture. There was much to be desired in their shallow and short scenes, specifically in their final moments together. The end of their arc leaves Annabelle’s own inner turmoil completely unresolved. Bailey and Wolff do the most with their scenes together, but this thinly-drawn plot keeps ‘The Line’ from quite touching greatness.
The film steams toward an explosive finale, but once the bomb goes off and the dust settles, we’re reminded of an uneasy truth: the wealthy and powerful will always come out unscathed. Fraternity culture is a microcosm of American culture, revealing that loyalty to tradition is dangerous, particularly when said traditions fuel toxic masculinity and only serve to uphold the wealthy elite. Berger’s feature debut is a slick, tightly-wound, well-paced thriller bolstered by a masterful performance by Wolff and grounded in searing and unfortunate truths about fraternity culture.