Dorms are strange places. They truly exist as their own mini-ecosystem, as hotboxes of different levels of teenage angst and identity issues come together in the form of hundreds of newly-formed adults under the same roof that have, for the most part, had never before had to deal with the similar issues of other people in so close a proximity. School, you could always come home from. When you’re living in the dorms, social pressure, self-doubt and questionable anxieties are as close as the roommate having sex with his girlfriend two feet away from you as you fake sleeping. (If I wanted to pinpoint the moment my heterosexuality vanished completely, this would be it. Seriously, take off your filthy shirt, or at least put on a clean one.)
It’s no wonder some people burn out after a matter of weeks – it’s like suddenly being thrown into a giant family unit in which everyone is both fascinated by and suspicious of everyone else. DRINKNG GAMES, the latest film from director Ryan Gielen, whose THE GRADUATES was a welcome coming-of-age drama/comedy, is set entirely in the fishbowl that is a college dorm, given even more intimacy by setting the story during a holiday break as a snowstorm prevents anyone from delving too far outside the sanctity of their surroundings.
Richard (Blake Merriman) and Shawn (Nick Vergara) are roommates that have a past together, but have grown apart, as Richard states in his opening narration. Richard’s become more bookish and concentrates on his studies, where Shawn’s “beer pong” t-shirt encapsulates everything you need to know about the character – he sees himself as a “party guy,” but he’s so lacking in self-confidence that he wears a t-shirt that clearly makes sure everyone knows he’s a “party guy.”
The catalyst for drama comes in the form of Noopie, an older, drug-snorting psycho who’s been passed out on the floor of the pair’s tiny dorm room. When he wakes up, he makes efforts to turn the room into a party, much to the chagrin of Richard and the well-meaning R.A. played by Joshua Sterling Bragg.
The rest of film takes place almost entirely inside the dorm room, as characters enter and leave, including the lead duo, who often vanish from the film for large chunks at a time. Noopie forces conflicts with the love interests of the pair, as Richard explains himself to the soft-spoken Melanie (Riccarda Natalie) and Shawn tries to make time with the more amenable-to-booze Erin (Katy Wright).
The film originated as a stage play from screenwriter Merriman, so it’s not surprising that it’s so isolated, but Gielen does a generally solid job of making sure it doesn’t feel too stagey. The dialogue is believable, especially between the two roommates, who discuss the awfulness of the new STAR WARS films and the still-otherworldly concept of sex in a way that manages to both define their comfortable history and the rift between the two that’s formed. Minor scuffles about the quality of booze and
The R.A. character is also a thing of quietly comic beauty, as he comes across as exactly how an R.A. would, forcibly stating the rules with a half-assed shrug, as though he wants to be both an authority figure and one of the “cool kids,” and managing to be neither. The “cool kids” that he attempts to integrate himself with are just as convincing, all of them (save for Noopie) a whirling boil of self-doubt and hormones that makes them convincing human beings.
The biggest problem with DRINKING GAMES is that it oversells Noopie, introducing him with a dramatic musical cue and narration in which Richard explains that he was “a black hole. People disappeared into him.” In truth, he’s just kind of a self-absorbed douchebag who wields a middling amount of power over some easily-manipulated college freshmen, convincing them to do things that would result in, at most, a stern lecture from their parents.
It’s especially problematic when the film tries to go from character drama to thriller, as Noopie cracks and gets a bit violent. As the solid character drama turns into a mildly confusing thriller in which several of the characters (including one of the leads) have just vanished from the film, things fall apart a bit as the stakes never seem all that high (someone could just call the police and end the whole evening) that it feels like a dramatic ending placed solely for the purpose of the film needing some kind of “punch.”
DRINKING GAMES, however, is well-written and well-acted enough that it doesn’t need a punch – the characters are compelling enough that you just want to see their stories unfold. In an odd way, DRINKING GAMES lacks the same self-confidence that its characters lack, attempting to overcompensate with a loud, brash act when it doesn’t need to because it’s a solid enough story with identifiable situations on its own.
This quirk aside, there’s a lot to like in DRINKING GAMES, and both the cast and crew are talents to watch out for. The dramatic aspects are easily identifiable for anyone who’s spent time living in the dorms, and the tension between the characters is enough of a thriller on its own. The final act just seems a little out of place, and it certainly doesn’t negate the admirable bulk of the film. (Also, nobody really plays any drinking games, but I never understood people that need a socially-constructed “reason” to drink, anyway.
DRINKING GAMES is available on Amazon Streaming here.
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