Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Daniel Robbins
Writer: Zachary Weiner
Producer: Keaton Heinrichs, Akiva Nemetsky, Mark Rapaport
Stars: Zachery Byrd, Aaron Dalla Villa, Phillip Andre Botello, Zachary Weiner, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher
Rejected by every fraternity on campus, misfit college students pledge a secretive social club with a shocking initiation ritual.
Misfit friends David, Justin, and Ethan are having a rough go of their freshman first semester at college. Desperate for the “cool kid” kinship they presume comes with joining a fraternity, they’ve not only been rejected, they’ve been outright humiliated by every Greek house they’ve tried pledging during Rush Week.
Along comes Rachel. David, who fills the bespectacled neurotic quotient, and Justin, the portly yin to Ethan’s introverted yang, can hardly believe a random coed with so much charm even noticed them. Nevertheless, Rachel has exactly what the trio wants: an exclusive invite to an incredible private party.
Overloading on eager girls and plentiful booze at a secluded mansion in the woods, the threesome’s newfound fortune seems too good to be true. It is. Party hosts Max, Ricky, and Bret are part of a secretive social club that they want David, Justin, and Ethan to join. But if these three freaks and two other fellow geeks want to live this apparent life of luxury every day for the next four years, they’re going to have to undergo an unthinkable initiation ritual first.
A picture of “Pledge” can be painted in qualitative terms tempered so as not to offer a misrepresented impression. Although uncomplicated in approach, it wouldn’t exactly be accurate to describe the straight arrow script as simplistic. Often nail-bitingly dark in tone, visuals refrain from wallowing in gory exploitation to get their gruesomeness across. Pockmarked with enough bumbling college kid humor to lighten the load, jocularity never undermines the stakes of the situation.
In short, “Pledge” blends its various components beautifully for a “just right” bowl of Goldilocks porridge in the form of a well-balanced little chiller. Beyond that, “Pledge” sets a model example for what an indie effort can accomplish simply though solid production value and remarkably strong casting.
The eight main men aren’t even playing eight different archetypes. They’re essentially playing two: likable losers straight out of a “Revenge of the Nerds” sequel, and sneering snobs whose shoulders would hold a V-neck sweater or a squash racquet if they were romantic comedy relationship rivals.
Yet the core cast, particularly the top trio on the sad sack side of things, portrays naturalistic nebbishes with such sweet sincerity, they’re incredibly easy to rally behind. Zachary Weiner (David), who also wrote the movie, pairs perfectly with Zachery Byrd (Justin) for chemistry that makes it seem like they’ve been playfully tolerating each other’s friendship with enthusiasm as well as exasperation since kindergarten.
Their antagonists are just as easy to despise. The sinister senior threesome entrenches itself in more mundane material, but they’ve got the privileged prick tics down pat. Cameron Cowperthwaite wears a cocky smirk mirroring every pharma-bro face you’ve ever wanted to smack, and I mean that as a compliment to his performance. Aaron Dalla Valla, who ought to be first in line to play Anton Yelchin should there ever be a biopic about the late “Star Trek” actor’s life, also nails the elitist university grad embodiment, right down to a contemptible coif on the top of his head.
With actors this enjoyable to watch, even while occupying stereotypical slots, half the battle is already won for getting an audience to engage with the plot. From there, “Pledge” journeys down a path somewhat similar to the squirm-inducing setups of “Saw.” Except director Daniel Robbins doesn’t have a gross-out goal in mind. Torture is depicted as delicately as a mainstream movie might allow, never more or less visceral than necessary, without excessive effects or buckets of blood.
“Pledge” putters only rarely and only briefly. Weiner’s script gets caught cheating here and there, specifically with regard to how certain characters move in and out of various rooms at narratively convenient intervals. But really, there’s barely an ounce of fat on the film’s to-the-point 75-minute runtime.
To stretch that earlier Three Bears reference even thinner, “Pledge” is not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, and not too soft. It’s just a clear-cut slash of traditional thrills biting off only what it can chew with entertainingly sharp teeth.
Review Score: 85