The plot of Bridgend almost feels like it was engineered to create the most punishing art-house film of all time: A cop (Steven Waddington) and his teenage daughter Sara (Hannah Murray) move to a sleepy Welsh town that's become notorious as a hotbed for mass suicide among its youths. Unfortunately, the movie isn't purely fiction; it's a dramatization of real events that have plagued a town of the same name since at least 2007 (a 2012 article in People magazine estimated that 79 locals had inexplicably killed themselves at that point, in most cases leaving behind no note and no real motive as to why they chose to end their lives).
It's unclear what drove Danish documentarian Jeppe Ronde to focus on this phenomenon for his first narrative film. He treats the subject sensitively and without exploitation, yet despite his success at creating a mood of all-consuming dread, the movie just doesn't add up to much. In the early going, the story alternates between scenes of wayward kids partying and moments in which a friend knocks on Sara's door and blankly informs her that her latest make-out partner has hung himself; by the end, it's just one scene after another of people screaming at each other.
The movie ends up trapped in a frustrating rut. It's can't really explain why these suicides are happening since the events are, by their very nature, completely inexplicable (though the teens celebrate the deaths a little too much after they occur, they never overtly pressure each other to kill themselves). But it could have provided some kind of context to place them in. The kids all seem lonely and morose, like they're carrying some terrible burden around with them, but why? Is it the claustrophobic nature of small-town life? The dismal modern economy? The heightened emotions of adolescence, distilled into something frightening by unusual social dynamics? Some combination of the above? The film barely even hints at possible answers; most of the kids talk about how much they hate their parents, for instance, but we never see enough of the adults to know if that anger is justified or not.
Weirdly, it's not even clear when Bridgend is supposed to take place, as some of the teens communicate via an Internet chat room that looks like a holdover from the mid-'90s. Maybe this was an intentional design choice on the part of the filmmakers -- a way to make the movie seem more dreamlike and timeless -- but this small detail inadvertently highlights Bridgend's crippling flaw: Without any sense of time or place to anchor the story and give it meaning, it becomes little more than an endless parade of misery.