Hannah Murray (Sara) and Josh O'Connor (Jamie) star in Bridgend. Photo Credit: Magnus Jønck.

Hannah Murray (Sara) and Josh O’Connor (Jamie) star in Bridgend. Photo Credit: Magnus Jønck.

From 2007-2012, a tragedy beset Welsh villages nestled within the narrow valleys of Bridgend County: 79 youths committed suicide, most by hanging. As word of the deaths leaked out of these isolated, former industrial communities, a media frenzy cut through the region’s verdant forests, fog, and rain in a feeble attempt to understand a 21st century plague that had arrived with no warning. Understandably, there was great backlash, not only from the families of the deceased — whose daughters and sons were splashed across the pages of British tabloids — but also from police and medical professionals, who warned that the macabre reporting could be fueling the fire. Since 2012, it appears the media has heeded the warning, and the suicides have declined but not stopped altogether.

Enter Jeppe Rønde, whose previous documentary films have won numerous international accolades, including a Robert Award (Denmark’s Oscar equivalent) and Best International Director at the Toronto Film Festival for The Swenkas. This time around, the Danish director/writer has taken it upon himself to reintroduce the world to the tragedy through a fictitious lens that creates little empathy for the teens whose lives are unraveling into a bacchanalian feast of the dead.

At the heart of Rønde’s feature film, Bridgend (nothing like re-shining the spotlight), which screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, is a fragmented coming-of-age story. Sara (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones) has recently moved with her widowed father, Dave (played by Steven Waddington), from Bristol to Bridgend, where he hopes as a police officer to stop the suicides but spends as much time between the sheets with a local woman as he does trying to keep his daughter from being drawn into the dark and brooding circle of hoodlums. As the suicides rise, Sara and friends of the deceased spend their time drinking, dancing, swimming naked in a forest pond, exploring sex, and communicating via an Internet chat room.

There’s no craft in Rønde’s approach to the subject matter. Rather, he floats somewhere between cinéma vérité and Bergmanian symbolism and early on gets lost in the Welsh fog. The repetition of images preceding the youths’ suicides (clothes neatly laid out, nude girls floating in red-tinged waters, evocative words blinking on a computer screen) is a slick effect that makes a mockery of the emotional angst we crave before another takes his/her life. Instead, we are barely moved when we see a boy hanging from a noose, who minutes earlier had been cavorting with friends. Their response to each suicide is also repeated, each time a bit rawer, a bit wilder. The youths trek to the site of the act, howl the victim’s name like a pack of wolves, and then slink into the haunting forest to drink, unclothe, and swim in the murky backwaters. We are shocked into confusion and revulsion.

To provoke such strong emotions out of one’s own imaginative canvas is one thing. But it’s wholly another when there are close to 100 families who have suffered the real loss of life and are still searching for answers.

A few things save the director from himself.

The camera work of cinematographer Magnus Jønck, recipient of a Robert Award for the film R, is startling in its ability to evoke emotion through a pane of glass or a wild ride on a horse through the Welsh countryside. Celtic ghosts seem to hang from the mist, without ever making their visages known. And Murray’s performance as Sara deserves a nod, particularly when she shares scenes with her boyfriend Jamie (Josh O’Connor). They also aren’t necessarily likable characters, but the young actors’ talents pump life into an otherwise lifeless cast of outsiders and hooligans. In a way, it’s their coming-of-age story, and by the end of the film, you almost believe they believe it.

Rating: C-

Video courtesy of NewEuropeFilmSales.

“Bridgend,” which runs at 105 minutes, is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 26 at 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. For information about location and tickets, you can visit the TFF’s official Web site by clicking here. The film had its North American premiere on April 16.