There’s tons of motion and tons of stillness present in Initiation. The camera is constantly swirling, framing just about every scene in a cornucopia of dynamic oners and kinetic compositions. The screen is also jam-packed with visualizations of technology; the ubiquity of cell phones and constant communication constantly streaming in any empty area of the frame. At the same time, the picture is more than willing to slow things down, to examine its characters beyond their surface level tropes, to really reckon with the fallout that comes from a serial murderer, rather than simply hopping to the next gory set piece (though the gory setpieces still affect, no worries there). Initiation is a unique indie horror-thriller, one with an unprecedented sense of maturity in its filmmaking and thematic aims, even as it gives you the visceral scares you want and need.
The Scott siblings (Lindsay LaVanchy and Froy Gutierrez) are the platonic ideal of “successful college students.” LaVanchy’s Ellery runs a vibrant, popular sorority on campus, while Gutierrez’s Wes is an Olympic level swimmer. But when a freshman initiation joint frat/sorority party seems to go wrong in ways that echo Wes’ morally questionable past, a killer starts picking off the participants one by one, leaving Ellery, her best friend Shayleen (Shireen Lai), and the young woman who may have been victimized by Wes (Isabella Gomez) to try and solve this horrific mystery while surviving themselves.
Co-writer and director John Berardo, adapting his own short film with co-writers Brian Frager and LaVanchy, is less interested in giving a young-leaning audience an introduction to slasher film pleasures than giving them an introduction to prestige thriller disruptions. I have no idea how he and DP Jonathan Pope achieved such a robust, constantly driving visual language on such a limited budget, but I’m so grateful they did. Every inch of Initiation’s wide frame is used with intention, its fluid movements absorbing us fully in the action, its jump-scares feeling genuinely surprising and refreshing due to its cinematic confidence. At times, some of these techniques are used unnecessarily on “director’s reel on Vimeo” feeling establishing shots, but I’d rather take a film with too much visual flavor than not enough.
Thematically, Initiation explores lots of issues facing contemporary youth culture in ways both subtle and provocative. The inciting incident comes from a cruel, slut-shaming social media game played by the gross frat bros of the college, and the rest of the film, without ever explicitly calling it out, finds its characters constantly engaging in their digital spaces, pulling out their phones almost as a reflex even during the most intense of scenes. The film overlays whatever they’re doing in their screenlife on the margins of the frame as their real life plays out in front of them, portraying how so many of us rely on constant digital chatter in about as effective a way as I’ve ever seen in contemporary cinema.
The film also explores trauma, legacy, systemic failures of so-called protective institutions, and the emotional impacts and fallouts that come to the individuals stuck in the center of them. But these explorations are, curiously and usually effectively, never quite centralized. They lurk in the margins of every action, reaction, emotional beat, and even kill portrayed in the film. And the actors are more than up for the challenge of their director’s heavy emphasis on showing not telling. This young cast tackles the pain they’re going through with a refreshing lack of veneer, more than willing to look straight up “bad” in their pursuit for truth. Initiation serves as great showpieces for these performers, and I can’t wait to see how they all continue to grow in the roles they deserve to come.
By the end of the film, some of these issues are stated and explored more explicitly, a set of gnarly kills is staged in thrillingly staged visual tableaus, and the ending twist punches you in the gut before hard-cutting to black and getting the hell out of there. It feels like Initiation has left some of what it needs to say on the table, and yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since its ending, meaning that the film and all its curious techniques achieves a welcome goal of audience immersion impeccably. Initiation is quite the low budget genre marvel, a propulsive yet patient thriller that cares deeply, yet ruthlessly, about its characters. It’s kind of like Sam Levinson combined Promising Young Woman with Scream, and it is more than worth you seeking out.
Initiation is now available in theaters, on demand, and on digital.
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