Will (Dylan Vigas) is miserable. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who ran his wife off because of his sheer ugliness in his treatment of people. After the divorce, Will and his father moved to a new town for a “fresh start.” So now Will has to suffer as the new kid at school. Even worse, he’s fat, too, so Will is getting picked on at home and at school. He meets Cory, John and Jevon, also all outcasts at school, and there is an immediate bond between the four. Very quickly the group becomes close friends.
All four teens are essentially good kids that, for one reason or the other, are seen as being different, as “losers” by everyone in their lives. Cory is the clear leader of the group, but he has no real home life. Sometimes he lives with his uncle while other times no one really knows where Will goes. His private life is kept private, both from his friends as well as the viewer, but the implication is that his parents are uncaring. By contrast, John’s parents care deeply for him, but they are so naïve as to be oblivious to John’s problems, namely that he is an African-American teen who was adopted by a white family and raised from a small child to develop “white” tastes. For instance, he is a fan of country music and loves Willie Nelson. These proclivities cause him to be seen by the other blacks in his school as a freak and a traitor, and he is tortured mercilessly. Jevon is brilliant and has just blown the SAT out of the water. But we all know that sometimes brilliant teens can become outcasts just for that reason. So Jevon is seen as a nerd at school while at home he is beaten mercilessly by his domineering father who also openly pimps out his alcoholic wife—Jevon’s mother. Consequently, Jevon drops a great deal of acid to cope with his horrendous situation. And we’ve already met Will, who is constantly berated and slapped around by his father for being fat, stupid and lazy. Will’s father blames Will for his mother running out on them, but he is too drunk to understand what really happened.
Home life aside, school should be a refuge for these abused and/or neglected teens. Unfortunately, as we have seen all too often in real life, school can be just another location for more abuse to occur with some kids. The teachers are out of touch with reality, as are the administrators. In one instance, the star of the football team picks a fight with Will, sucker-punching him. A teacher intervenes and begins to lecture Will. When Will protests, using some foul language, he ends up being punished. This further alienates the teens as they see this punishment as unfairly targeting a member of their group when the real culprit was the stereotypical jock who, once again, got away with bad behavior.
Will also experiences this feeling of disenfranchisement as he is ridiculed by the teacher for his poor grades. He curses at the teacher and is sent to the office where the principal explains to him that his instructor just won Teacher of the Year and is an excellent person, therefore, the incident must have been Will’s fault.
As the boys continue to be marginalized and mistreated, they finally get tired of the unfair treatment and decide to act exactly the way people expect them to act. They purposefully fail all their tests, curse at both teachers and the principal, pick fights with other students, and generally become real thorns in the side for everyone. There are some defining moments for the boys, such as Will deciding to do nothing but quack loudly in class in protest for being publicly ridiculed by his teacher. He is suspended for five days and beaten with a belt by his father for his efforts. In another instance, Cory manages to make a connection with the football star’s girlfriend and they end up having sex. While this is definitely a high point in Will’s life, he doesn’t expect to see the girl back with her boyfriend the very next day. Will is deeply hurt by this. John is tracked by some jocks and in a particularly distasteful—though not graphic—scene, is sodomized Deliverance-style with a stick. But the final straw comes when the boys decide to put rainbow bumper stickers on every car in the school’s parking lot. Jevon wants none of this foolishness and stuffs the bumper stickers into his book bag. Later, the principal glimpses one of these colorful bumper stickers protruding from Jevon’s bag and searches the bag, finding Jevon’s stash of acid. He is expelled from school, which sets up a horrific chain of events at home that culminates in Jevon taking his own life.
Events continue to spiral out of control, eventually resulting in the three remaining boys arming themselves and shooting up the school. The story is narrated by Will, the sole survivor of the group—Cory and John having died in a blaze of glory—as he recounts certain events that led to the shootout.
Writer and director Cory Cataldo has crafted a darkly comic and sometimes quite dramatic film from the perspective of a teen pariah. No excuses are made by our character Will as he tells his story. He doesn’t whine or complain, or even attempt to explain away what happened; he merely recounts some of the most horrific events in his life as well as the lives of his friends leading up to the school shooting. The rest is up to the viewer to interpret.
To be fair, while no doubt these boys had plenty of problems and were treated unfairly by almost everyone, that isn’t a reason to take multiple lives. For every Will (or every Columbine, for that matter) I can point to others who were abused and not only made it out alive, but became successful in both their personal and professional lives. The opposite is also true: I personally know loving families who had a child that made poor decisions and ended up in jail or worse. There is no cookie-cutter solution to teen problems. So while this tremendous abuse certainly is a factor when it comes to school shootings and teen suicide, and while there is no excuse for poor parenting or for monstrous teachers, society can’t just put a finger on one series of events and place the blame for a terrible act of violence on those particular events. It’s more complicated than that. In fact, I wish it were as simple as identifying the outcasts and intervening before they snap. But some outcasts don’t snap and go on to successful lives, while other teens snap for no apparent reason at all.
Mad World doesn’t attempt to explain away or even to suggest a solution to these very real, and increasingly pervasive, problems. Its power lies in the fact that the events are simply narrated as observations of occurrences that preceded a tragic event. The viewer is left to reflect upon their meaning and to possibly arrive at his or her own interpretation of those events.
The acting is generally strong by our lead ensemble (some of the supporting characters, especially the adults are mere caricatures and a bit wooden), while the soundtrack fits the film and its events perfectly. My only real complaint was in the use of language. I’m no prude—I love De Palma’s “Scarface” and I am a fan of Guy Ritchie’s gangster flicks, so F-bombs don’t offend my sensibilities. However, some of the more dramatic scenes in Mad World—like Jevon confronting Cory after he’s been suspended—could have been made more powerful by limiting the number of F-word’s. I know it was Will’s “shtick” to use the F-bomb; the character of Will even tells us this at the beginning of the film. But at some point, real language should be used in order for the characters to communicate. I felt like the sheer number of F-words in some sequences impeded the level of communication between characters as well as the communication between the film and viewer.
Alternating between being wickedly funny and heartbreakingly sad—and occasionally shockingly distasteful–Mad World is a unique independent film that may be considered entertainment for some but could also be used to begin important dialogue about bullying and abuse. Mad World has been released by Breaking Glass Pictures. For more information, please go to breakingglasspictures.com.