Fraternities exist to offer people a sense of community, but they can also take much more than they give. Well-documented cases of hazing and truly destructive behavior have plagued the reputations of these institutions that, for many, enhance and even define their college experiences. There’s not much worth saving based on the portrait The Line paints, showing very little good and plenty of bad in a fictional college fraternity story that takes an equally disturbing and predictable dark course.
The Line begins by showing two friends partying and having the time of their lives. Before he heads back to school, Tom (Alex Wolff) is questioned by his mother (Cheri Oteri) about the time he is putting in to KNA, his fraternity at Sumpter College, and how it has affected his behavior, citing his “faux Forrest Gump accent” as a prime example. He insists he is getting something out of all of it, that relationships are everything, and the film’s opening credits mix modern-day footage with clips of famous fraternity alumni, including numerous future United States presidents. It echoes the way that Tom feels pride for being part of something that he has been led to believe will only make his life and career prospects better.
His actual experience within KNA is considerably less sophisticated. While giving him a tour of their newly redecorated room, Tom’s best friend Mitch (Bo Miller) asks him if he has ever met his buddy Gargalon (it’s his segue into “Gargle on these nuts”). That immature humor, coupled with the hat he later wears that reads “Show Me That Butthole,” best encapsulates everything about how Mitch behaves, much to the chagrin of his parents, played by John Malkovich and Denise Richards in just one early scene of the film. Mitch’s apparent idiocy may be easily dismissed as childish behavior, but it brings with it a dangerous vindictiveness when a freshman pledge, Gettys (Austin Abrams), refuses to take Mitch seriously and incurs his targeted wrath as a result.
There’s not much hope for humanity if these characters and this film’s events represent even a significant swath of the population. That they manage to speak in complete sentences feels almost surprising since their thoughts tend to be basic and consist mainly of them telling others they seem gay. When Tom takes an interest in his classmate Annabelle (Halle Bailey), his fraternity brothers dismiss her as a “black lesbian” (and mock her visible armpit hair), and her character isn’t particularly more developed than that, other than to show how guarded she is against someone who has clearly drunk the fraternity kool-aid.
Where The Line starts to get interesting is in its presentation of Tom and fraternity president Todd (Lewis Pullman). Both seem capable of more than Mitch but aren’t focused on moving KNA forward. When a new Dean of Student Life directly tells them that hazing won’t be accepted, Todd laments that he won’t just “look the other way” like his predecessor, a KNA alum who “got it.” These two people are meant to be the good guys in a bad system, with Tom taking the role of the bystander who could step in to stop the chaos caused by Mitch and his other brothers but doesn’t see that as his role.
There are moments where this film feels like a comedy, as if Mitch couldn’t possibly exist as a real person and that some adult will surely come along to tell these college students that they’re making incredibly stupid decisions that will inconsolably affect their futures. But that doesn’t happen, and Ethan Berger’s directorial debut instead follows an entirely expected trajectory with little freshness to be found. Wolff and Pullman are talented actors who dependably make their characters feel three-dimensional, and while the rest of the ensemble includes noteworthy names, there isn’t much for them to do.
A small role for Angus Cloud makes this film sometimes feel like an extension of Euphoria with his costar Abrams also present, as if this could be where the best and brightest of that haunted high school end up when they go to college. There are similarities to be found, both in the content featured and the underlying message that the system is broken and our future generations may be doomed. The Line spells out the problems and pitfalls of a social organization built on early humiliation and unending loyalty but doesn’t add anything new or compelling to the conversation.
This review is from the 2023 Tribeca Festival.