…if it ever started.
I think a part of growing up in this day and age is discerning IRL prospects from fickle social capital. This may be part and parcel with the assertion: “High school doesn’t last forever,” a proverb engrained upon young student bodies by various adults; mostly career or guidance counsellors. The saying didn’t really resonate during the first half of the twentieth century since success and acceptance had been so politicized in terms of aristocracy and respectability. Since face was so esteemed, there wasn’t such a thing as outgrowing your class: literal or figurative.
Then, “High school doesn’t last forever” was only alluded to in the sixties given the ascent of the middle class along with scores of rags to riches celebrities who became staples of transcendence, divination, and countercultures.
During the late seventies, it became a mantra to empower marginalized academics; people who were defined by isolation and scarcity with a penchant for STEM fields—who would go on to cultivate lucrative empires, some of which are revered to date. This carried on into the eighties where class divisions somewhat coalesced since students could be sponsored more openly as opposed to exclusively, if not painstakingly chosen or moderated by private benefactors. These ascensions would play into the innately contradictory pastiche of decadent albeit disillusioned yuppies and revellers. New drugs along with new cults [of celebrity and Darwinian sci-fi angles] bled into what became an antithetical outlook of existentialism and nihilism.
What drove home the mantra was how everyone could relate to how high school was particularly hateful and hierarchal. Knowing it literally was only a matter of time was said as an assurance. What was ironic was that it had to be said in the first place, because it evinced the inaction of the adults who floated this consolation. The toxic cultures of high school were bred by the same people who sold this proverb as motivational. There were no callouts or interventions. No expulsions. Not much beyond a slap on the wrist. The very same people who swore the anguish wouldn’t last forever either ignored or idled by as it happened. Except in these decades, students had a firmer grasp of world events and a whiff of corporate politics. The wider range of press, peer groups, along with the seamless portals between nightlife and the high life shaped their emotive and intellectual landscapes—and with that came not only the cognizance, but reactions to adult hypocrisy.
Of course, hypocrisy was nothing new; its awareness just materialized as a rite of passage. Pop culture monetized tropes of student solidarity on a local level. The villainous parliamentarians and warmongers were still screwing the world over, but students were inclined to note how they were otherwise antagonized; and to an extent, to note how their protectors [parents, guardians, voting or apathetic adults] had themselves played into the hands of the evil, elite overseers—whose legacy they would fare against once they grew up.
The more they stewed and speculated, the clearer things became. The immediate adults didn’t have their best interests at heart which was even more of a betrayal than the tyrannous conglomerates. So, the objective became to overthrow, not merely outwit disgruntled parents and educators.
Even though ranks were clear, peer groups diversified by interest. There were still kings and queens, but also monarchies—which wasn’t too different from the real world. What marked the shift in the later decade was how one could not only climb ranks, but climb as high as they desired by any means possible to the chagrin of peers and elders. Growing up afforded the prospect of independence and outclassing anyone at anytime.
Which would be great if life was only about reputation. The consolation that there are bigger fish to fry in the sea of life as well as possessing the agency to move with, lead, or even surpass the school doesn’t hold much water for the people who must swim against the tide. Everyday people internalized a morsel of that when they found themselves alienated; wholly investing in systems and socialites only to turn up short. The “cool kids” were everywhere and nowhere—the selective [back then, rare] social influencers, the glamorous heirs, the ingenious economists, the reclusive visionaries—all of whom were just as likely to be the gold stars or the odd ones out in high school.
By the time the nineties rolled round, people began to notice that there was a distinct singularity of the real-time scene king or queen. They offered little, if anything of real value that was usually in the form of a single “circumstantial” asset. The royals were by default conventionally attractive which made their “good looks” unremarkable—something people invariably learned through the billion-dollar beauty industries which banked upon consumer insecurities, and the gatekeepers who absconded them. Beyond that, what was there? Contagious laughter? Comic “genius”? A golden arm or other appendage? Generous allowances?
Whatever it was, it was always one thing. There was a range of depth (or lack thereof) in terms of personality or what made the cool kids unique as people in and of themselves; but when it came to popularity, all of that was insubstantial. While this fact wasn’t new, it struck home in the nineties for most of the same reasons students were inclined to think more critically about what did/didn’t set apart their peers and protectors decades before. The nineties just drew this out more because [of] most civil wars had been escalated or prolonged to a disastrous precipice; the hypervisibility and Othering of drug epidemics and state sanctioned brutality; the individualism and idealism which defined Generation X; and many people believed 2000 would be the end of the world.
This decade also saw a break where adults could no longer assume an inactive or misguided whilst condescending stance for youth. What were understood to be adult ills found their way to high schools and afflicted students therein. Adults couldn’t simply sit back and assure students nothing lasted forever in this decade because by then, things had gone too far to the wayside on a grand scale. Surviving high school became a feat in itself. The drug use, gun violence, and a burgeoning attempt to acknowledge rape culture yielded too many casualties. I also think that a good chuck of adults in this era were also incentivized to act since they bore in mind their own youthful revelations and resistances. They had seen casualties firsthand of their own or of others. Grassroots initiatives and community outreach became transformative staples. Anti-bullying, anger management, and gun control (and education) campaigns emerged in the tragic wake of murderous spats between students. Active efforts were also explored to better suicide prevention. The derisive resolve of grunge icons and the underground also inclined folks against uncritically revering authority.
And, that all gradually wilted once the internet flourished. There was the upside in enabling connectivity, insulating communities, and open access information. However, none of that outweighed the cons: cyberbullying, cyber-stalking, death threats, doxing, romanticism; and how the power of numbers is subverted to quantify rather than qualify merit, instead of uniting a working majority against a corrupt minority who control natural and monetary reservoirs.
While people started to question and outgrow the popularity complex and the one-dimensionality of those at the top, the 2000s saw the internet completely transform the cult of the individual. Social media imbued users with a wealth of tools to assume airs. Unlike what folks came to see as the garden variety patrician IRL, online personae assume a sentience because of technological matrices. This is evinced in the disparities between the Kiki who gleans acclaim [by means of circulation and validation] from tens of thousands online, everyday people and celebrities alike; and the unremarkable mendicant who is ultimately faceless and penniless IRL.
Truth or Die (also known as Truth or Dare) is one of many movies at whose heart is the confrontation of shifting positionalities and the culture shock of new versus old technologies. It follows the familiar setup of scores unsettled and bones unpicked premised through flashbacks which afflict what’s intended to be a friendly reunion. One of the integral conflicts sees a main character’s (Felix, played by Tom Kane) unrequited crush that sows discord—which would go on to ultimately hollow past and prospective relationships. While the character’s trauma remains in the foreground, a core focus is their deficit social capital as a result.
While the murder mystery that unfolds is rather formulaic, what makes Truth or Die unique is the lens of it looks through. Reality hinges upon the fact that media and capital are at odds in how they serve to disrupt or fracture social networks. The main characters comprise a peer group whose members were popular in trademark fashion: the archetype one who is an optimist, the goof, the athlete, the rich, the rationalist—but nobody was ever more than one. The present day reunion makes for a contemporary past their former lives were set in, which informs the precarious rank they held over their nonplussed classmates.
True to the adage, the group dissolves as time passed. They grow enraged, then estranged after a fallout. Most of them forget one another as they make new ties once they sever old ones. Felix’s brother, Justin—played by the handsome David Oakes [who has made me salivate since The Borgias]—orchestrates their reunion. He invites them to a dinner party; the occasion to celebrate Felix’s homecoming; the venue being a cabin on his family’s estate. While some might cite the lack of character development or back story could hamper the story, I find that’s exactly what strengthens the narrative in respect to the theme of reunion. What’s past or present is inconsequential since these archetypes, just like those of high school realities, are genuinely unlikeable characters. It doesn’t matter where they came from, where they’re headed, or what trials and tribulations they face. They’re the cool kids. Their existence—and status—is contingent upon their often cruel subjectification of others. Nothing justifies that. No insight into their personal lives or catharses would elicit sympathy; which is what makes Justin’s creed somewhat identifiable, if not noble. This role also drives home Oakes’ virtuosity as an actor. At least, if you’ve kept up with his filmography. This is one of many characters which evince his mutability. His personae are superb since he’s totally believable as hero or villain, and he’s married the two in this latest crusade.
This kind of rising action isn’t exactly new, but precarity is what marks this departure: how easily havoc can be wrought by ranks and media is what’s thematic of the overall film. I found Truth or Die more honest and grounded than similar series—Gossip Girl being the infamous example—in its dynamics and execution. Profound revelations bleed through point blank dialogue in the absence of cosmic or quirky coincidences. The lack of pretension redirects viewers to the actual plot rather than suspend their disbelief. And the cinematography that hones in on every subject through mostly mid to tight closeups emphasizes both literal and figurative faces. An expressive focus is further diffused by russet, sparsely furnished interiors and dark forest thickets which comprise the mise-en-scène.
There’s also an element of surrealism as bites of a melancholic, transcendent narration muse upon both living and dying in the moment. Moreover, how the moment loses rather than retains meaning as new technologies emerge to record it. Truth or Die incorporates a dimension of mastery which motivates one’s compulsion to photograph, videotape, scrapbook, or otherwise archive; where one can always assume a degree of control—however small or significant—over a moment that technology can capture. It also relates to a generational divide; where antiquated technologies crystallize precious moments versus the profuse modern, individual histories which hang online through public archives and activity logs.
However, Truth or Die falls short in its adherence to the archetype tale. Occasional campy exchanges and emphatic, spontaneous outbursts undermine narrative tension. This ends up reducing a chunk of reactions to stilt performances. Erraticism then minimizes the characters’ desperation as they try to bully out confessions and search for escape routes. It’s hard to believe they’re driven wholly by a sense of urgency as they saunter through scene by scene since they can’t be bothered to tread lightly. It’s even harder to believe they’re sympathetic as they turn on one another in a way that’s more flighty than callous.
Then, there’s Felix as a framing device: the clumsy recluse everyone is so keen to demoralize. His credulity makes for an obvious red herring. The camerawork is also a bit shaky in parts where it shouldn’t be; and cuts which go from straight on to canted angles disjoint the focus, particularly in sequences with dialogue.
And, the obvious thread that ties everything together here is that life does indeed beat beyond high school. Ironically, this is a pretty obvious element that tends to be downplayed or entirely overlooked in high school whodunnit reunion tales. The only explicit, fleshed out references to high school are ambivalent flashbacks that allude to potential murder motives or scenes within (or following) the climax when the culprit is unmasked. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case given the literal premise of these tales. It’s a shame because it’s such a simple, clever way to frame plot and character development—which in itself motivates why people have high school reunions.
No matter how much times change, the saying that “High school doesn’t last forever” resonates on the principle that happiness and bragging rights await those who take playground politics in stride. People don’t show up to high school reunions to check in or rekindle friendships. They show up to show out: drive home how they’ve become “cool kids” in their own right; gloat over how the cold, real world of adulthood overshadows whatever twinkled at the centre lunch table or bleachers.
The motive is petty in hindsight, but something most of us can relate to. I’m not exactly stewing over things everyday, every time, plotting in the wilderness; wearing a skull shirt and trench coat, resolving to enact vengeance—only to realize no matter what, it will always consume me long after the final execution. But I’m aware there are past qualms I’ve yet to suss out which have manifest in how I relate to things; and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the teeniest bit vindicated if I heard tragedy struck the monsters I knew in high school. Truth or Die acknowledges this not so guilty pleasure as it reinforces not only how far its circle of friends have fallen from glamorous graces, but how these falls serve as comeuppance. Nobody is perfect nor are they exempt from karma, but there are certain people who are duly dealt a distinct brand of just deserters.