Ethan Berger’s ‘The Line’ is an emotionally devastating drama that takes place inside a fictional, reputable college. It follows Tom Backster (played by Alex Wolff) as an ambitious young man trying to rise up the ranks of his social status. He is part of a fraternity that considers its traditions sacrosanct. Coming from a humble background with no riches to benefit from, Tom sees being part of this group as a way out of his seemingly miserable life.  

The fraternity provides Tom with contacts of who’s who from finance and politics. It entices him to lust over power, greed, and control. For its members, these aspects supersede any values of ethics or morality. As a result, Tom blindly does anything and everything that others expect of him. He also engages in occasional hazing as a way to fit in with this crowd. These students hardly face any action because of the fraternity’s track record of influence and financial capital. 

One thing that is clearly noticeable is how the fraternity is made up entirely of arrogant, self-entitled white men. They relish racial remarks and consider inclusivity a joke. Tom partakes in such teasing to not be ousted and not lose on a lucrative opportunity that they pose. In the process, he often forgets that he has no one to lean on, like the wealthy bunch. 

Later on, Tom’s utmost loyalty to this institution becomes shaky. He meets Annabelle (played by Halle Bailey) and is taken by her clever presence. His frat mates, however, tease her for being who she is – a black intellectual. Their teasing rather reflects their insecurity. But Tom stays in awe of her, perhaps because she dares to question the authority but does not consider it as something brave. For her, that’s a part of life. 

For Tom, living up to the staunch institutional beliefs is a mode of survival. Annabelle introduces an alternate way of life for him. Besides her, another reason why Tom starts questioning his said beliefs is the inclusion of Gettys O’Brien (played by Austin Abrams). Gettys openly disregards Tom’s sophomore batchmate – Mitch Miller (played by Bo Mitchell) but does not get reprimanded by their senior, Todd Stevens (played by Lewis Pullman). 

That preferential treatment toward a junior goes against the notions Tom hitherto held dear. While Annabelle serves as a moral compass for him, the O’Brien-Miller conflict becomes a reason for his lack of interest in masochistic delights. Through later developments, the film explores several aspects of his psyche to potently depict his journey involving introspection and self-actualization. 

While the script follows conflicts from a specific institution, it aptly presents the omnipresent fear of the fall of any institution on the face of the earth. With the rise of right-wing politics, we can notice a similar endearment toward traditions and their boundaries. The higher-ups hold the customs dear and consider the slightest diversion as a risk to the status quo. 

With every other situation, The Line presents the resulting fear-mongering and comments on the financial, social, and racial class disparities. While Tom’s introspection is mostly an internal process, O’Brien’s questioning is blunt and without fear. O’Brien demands basic human dignity, whereas Tom starts realizing his lack of humanity. 

The Line also explores men’s insecurity if they do not constantly project their manliness upon others. It shows the brutality that such insecure men subject others to. They fear being called weak for showing even an iota of emotion. The characters’ resulting outbreaks are reflective of several cruel events that have unfortunately become a new normal for the news. 

Through their portraits, The Line becomes a potent commentary about toxic masculinity for how men act when they feel they lack control. Ethan Berger directs this masterful screenplay (written by him with Zack Purdo and Alex Russek) in grim interiors, which heightens the anxiety and aptly reflects lifelessness.

Alex Wolff deserves every bit of praise for being our eyes and ears through this bleak journey. Tom walks on a thin line to find a balance between his humanity and his fraternity beliefs. Wolff embodies his fear, rage, and emptiness to potently reveal Tom’s eventual understanding of his lost innocence.

The Line was screened at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival

The Line (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Tribeca
The Line (2023) Movie Cast: Alex Wolff, Lewis Pullman, Halle Bailey, Austin Abrams, Angus Cloud, Scoot McNairy, John Malkovich, Bo Mitchell, Denise Richards
Director: Ethan Berger
Screenwriter: Ethan Berger, Alex Russek
Language: English
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Editor: Ted Feldman
Cinematographer: Stefan Weinberger

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