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Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Angst taken to greater depths

The Hole

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Ana
Director: Nick Hamm
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Is there such a thing as teenage life without angst? Is there even a remote possibility that one can experience a relatively calm, sane adolescence that morphs into adulthood with a minimum of bumps and jolts? The answer is an emphatic "no," at least not as long as the media in general and cinema in particular, insist on depicting teen life as a cross between violent hell and . . . just hell.

News photo
Keira Knightley, Thora Birch, Desmond Harrington and Laurence Fox in "The Hole"

Today's teenagers are liable to think something is wrong unless they weren't attacked by a serial killer on prom night (or a clairvoyant geek who knows which girls get stabbed on prom night), or sexually perverse by the age of 16 or a jock poet with a secret heroin addiction. With the ever-increasing number of teen-slasher flicks coupled with the ever-widening range of teen-angst films on the market, one wonders whether today's 12-year-olds would rather not take some sort of drug that would enable them to sleep through the next eight years, to wake up serene and ready for the boring but safe, adult world. Just say no to teenhood, kids.

This conviction is amplified by "The Hole," a horrific tale of teenage obsession and its consequences. Already it sounds like a cliche but, honestly, it's not what you think. Director Nick Hamm turns somersaults here, deliberately posing "The Hole" as a teen-slasher flick while parodying the genre in suitable doses. The result, though, is 100 times scarier than any amount of chain-sawing.

"The Hole" dips into the pitch-black darkness of the teenage psyche, and while it leaves a nasty aftertaste, there's no denying its sheer power. And who better to play the centerpiece of such a work than Thora Birch: teen darkness personified.

An actress since the age of 4, Birch arrived on the map with her performance in "American Beauty." She was smart, insecure, morose and cruel -- a wealth of complexities swirling inside her puppy-plump physique. In "The Hole" she flaunts all these traits, but she's also obsessive, calculating and sneaky. Your heart won't go out to her, you'll probably hate her, but to see her is to witness Acting Nirvana. Critics have her pegged as the next Jodie Foster, and judging from her current interviews, she'll probably have her own production company, several children, several ranches and a 2,000-kilowatt career by the age of 25.

And in the meantime, "The Hole." Four students from a posh British school go off for a weekend without telling anyone their whereabouts. Eighteen days later, only one of them returns. The story is told through her intermittent flashbacks (obviously a poke at Wes Craven films) and the more tranquil, coherent sessions she has with her therapist. Trouble is, her account differs greatly from the story told by another student whom she has accused of masterminding the entire weekend escapade and subsequent disaster. Think "Rashomon" meets "Picnic at Hanging Rock." But Birch's presence and the aggressive, crude dialogue throughout (everyone seems to be competing for who can cram the most uses of the word f**k into a single sentence) eliminate all subtle romance and turns up the dials on queasy hyper-realism. Enhancing the nitty-gritty is the lighting. Much of the action takes place in what was once an underground bomb shelter, lit by overhead fluorescent bulbs that are stark and utterly unflattering.

It is here, in this "hole," that Liz (Birch), glamour girl Frankie (Keira Knightley), Liz's heart-throb Mike (Desmond Harrington) and the sleazy Geoff (Laurence Fox) hole up for what they think is a jolly three-day escape from a dreary school field trip to Wales. Liz hopes that close proximity with Mike (American, son of a rock star, dates supermodels) will get him to notice her, while Frankie is interested in teasing Geoff out of his libidinous mind. It was the smart nerd Martin (Daniel Brocklebank) who suggested the whole plan, wishfully thinking this will put him in Liz's good favor.

Naturally the circle of crushes and obsessions gets hotboxed in the hole, but when the four find themselves locked inside, the emotions ferment to panic, paranoia and collapse. Bizarrely, Liz doesn't care. When Frankie gets sick and vomits in the hole's filthy toilet, Liz stands next to her, obsessing about whether Mike likes her or not.

In another era, Liz's destructive impulses would have met with a different fate. She recalls a famed Edo Period teenager named Oshichi, who met the love of her life in a shelter following a fire that burned down their neighborhood. But when their families' houses were built again, they were separated. Oshichi couldn't bear it. She committed arson in order to see him again and the blaze killed more than 200 people. Oh God, adolescence. As Liz so aptly says in the movie, "Half the time I don't know what the f**k I'm doing!"

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