I could have loved Groupers, the debut feature from writer/director Anderson Cowan. It has everything that I like in a movie, a good hook, good cinematography, and good acting. But the uneven expansion of the main idea and the addition of characters two-thirds of the way through the movie left me wanting something different than what I got...
...Groupers features homophobic high-school bullies Brad and Dylan (Peter Mayer-Klepchick and Cameron Duckett) who get fake IDs and pick up a beautiful woman at a bar. The woman turns out to be Meg (Nicole Dambro), who has plans to experiment on the two young men. The next morning they find themselves tied up and stranded in the empty deep end of a swimming pool in a vacant neighborhood. Meg seeks to have the young men prove that homosexuality is a choice through a sadistic experiment. If they can both get erections at the same time while only thinking of each other, they are free to leave. Why? Well, this experiment seeks to put an end to the old assertion of homophobes everywhere while serving as a little revenge for Meg's brother Orin (Jesse Pudles) who the two have been tormenting for years.
From there the story expands and takes stabs at being funny. Meg's taunts to Brad and Dylan, while they are in their vulnerable position, brings dark humor to the situation, but once Orin is introduced the humor stops landing. The introduction of new characters brings tension and unease but that quickly fizzles in a movie that isn't particularly tense unless you, too, are a homophobic jock.
Perhaps the main issue with the movie is not being explicit with who the audience is supposed to sympathize with. Are we supposed to sympathize with the homophobes or with the crazy chick experimenting on them? Before the reveal that Brad and Dylan are bullies to Meg's brother, the movie tries to portray these two teens as unfortunate horny boys. Then we're on Meg's side, getting revenge for her wronged brother. But when a mysterious man appears and takes interest in the two tied up teens, it seems like they're in real danger.
Nicole Dambro delivers a solid performance as Meg, being both darkly humorous and full of anger, while Jesse Pudles makes Orin a strangely disjointed character in a way that feels misplaced. Peter Mayer-Klepchick and Cameron Duckett both give good performances despite the limits of the situation. The best performance comes toward the end of the movie when Durant (Terrance Wentz) shows up and gives a surprisingly nuanced characterization to a character who could easily have been as stereotypical as the homophobic jocks at the center of the narrative.
Scenes with the contraption Brad and Dylan find themselves in, while not completely exposing the extent of their bondage until Meg explains the whole situation to them, help the payoff of the reveal later. The use of an old phonograph playing records helps with the pacing of the film and the music it plays helps to bring a little tension to scenes in which Brad and Dylan are left tied up alone in the pool. The narrative doesn't flow in the way it's presented, instead of chronologically, the director backtracks and shows things from characters as they are introduced. This is not a bad thing, per se, but I find the use of title cards distracting and unnecessary.
Every bullied kid dreams about getting revenge against their bullies. But this revenge fantasy falls flat. Not only does it rely on a few outdated stereotypes, but it also does not set itself up for the ending which it delivers. All-in-all an enjoyable movie, but it doesn't fulfill the promises the premise sets up.
Groupers tests you on VOD September 27th from Global Digital Releasing.
By Drew Sprague