Alex Wolff and Lewis Pullman as fraternity brothers on stairs in The Line

Greek life has been prominently featured in media for a while now, mainly in comedies like Animal House, Neighbors, and House Bunny. In recent years, however, Hollywood has had the desire to look more deeply into these institutions. From Max’s new documentary Bama Rush, which examines the sorority recruitment process that has dominated TikTok for the past several summers, to a storyline on Hulu’s Tell Me Lies, the darker side of this unique college experience has been an endless source of fascination.

Ethan Berger’s film The Line is one of the most successful. The film centers on fraternity member Tom (Alex Wolff) during his sophomore year. Not only is he forced to navigate the complex politics and alliances of his fraternity, but his unexpected relationship with Annabelle (Halle Bailey), a girl in one of his classes, as well as his lower economic status, complicates things further.


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‘The Line’ Tackles Big Topics in a Smart, Nuanced Way

One of the biggest things The Line has going for it is the way it tackles heavy, complicated subject matter in a way that feels authentic. It’s easy to write off fraternity brothers as entitled bullies, and certainly, there are times many of them come off this way in the film. But The Line also showcases the vulnerabilities and insecurities bubbling under the surface of these young men driving a lot of the aggressive behavior. It also explores the different reasons why they want to be a part of this organization that stems beyond sex, booze, and campus clout.

The line (pun intended) between victim and villain is often blurred in this film, examining the various power dynamics and how possessing that power can simultaneously be a blessing and a curse. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to make some big, grand proclamation, which ends up helping it get its message across in a more engaging, layered way. For example, Tom is relatively popular and revered among his fraternity brothers, but it’s clear he doesn’t come from the kind of money many of them do. He has to make his own connections instead of relying on his family name to get him a good job after college, and he often feels the pressure to hustle and stretch the truth when mingling with his friends’ affluent and influential parents. Wolff gives an excellent lead performance, inviting us to sympathize with him and his difficult choices without letting him off the hook for his mistakes.

In fact, the entire ensemble does a nice job giving their characters — which could easily feel like caricatures with less capable actors and a weaker script — dimension. And the two the most at risk of feeling cliche — loud, careless partier Mitch (Lewis Pullman) and cocky, slick pledge Gettys (Austin Abrams) — end up being the most interesting. Their rivalry drives the film, and they’re both evenly matched, each overtaking the other several times in their unspoken competition until a winner is ultimately declared in chilling fashion. Mitch comes from a filthy rich family, but he can’t seem to live up to his father’s (John Malkovich) expectations, and he likely got into the frat because he’s a legacy of the organization. Even within the frat, he’s a bit of an outcast, often mocked and talked down to by the other members. His mental health is obviously struggling, but of course, the toxic masculinity permeating frat culture, his family, and society as a whole keeps him from dealing with that in any healthy way, taking out his frustration and anger out on Gettys instead.

At times, it feels like Gettys deserves it — he’s insolent, disrespectful, and downright nasty to Mitch, slinging fatphobic and homophobic insults at him every chance he gets. But Abrams does a phenomenal job giving us silent flickers of vulnerability and genuine emotion that show us that underneath his antagonistic, brutal exterior, he’s just a teenage boy — one getting mercilessly hazed by a group of his peers in the name of tradition.

The inclusion of Annabelle is also great, and Halle Bailey’s performance proves she’s well on her way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young stars. She’s a breath of fresh air, taking Tom to wine and cheese nights and helping him study. But she also doesn’t take any shit, and her outsider’s perspective is much-needed. One of the movie’s most powerful scenes is between Annabelle and Tom after they’ve started hanging out and she asks to come see his frat. The conflict on Wolff’s face says so much — he knows the guys will make fun of him for bringing her around, but there’s also a part of him that feels ashamed for being complicit in allowing his friend to speak about her and other Black people and women the way they do. Perhaps he’s even trying to protect her, as he knows she would be uncomfortable around the racist, misogynistic group. Small scenes like this that are packed with so many implications and elevate the film from standard dramatic fare.

‘The Line’ Wobbles a Bit in the Third Act

The Line has a riveting first two acts, but it doesn’t feel like it completely sticks the landing, working better as a more lowkey film. This may seem like a counterintuitive thing to say, considering the first part of the movie is about as loud as can be, with frat boys constantly screaming and cursing over loud music, but it feels more intense when the stakes are objectively lower and kept inside the pressure cooker that is the fraternity.

With all of the horror stories in the news about hazing going wrong and turning deadly, you can probably guess the climax of the movie. It feels inevitable, and while it’s no doubt nauseating to watch, the predictability undercuts its impact. It’s earned and built up effectively, but there’s no real shock to it, and a more nuanced or murky ending could have made for a stronger choice. The core ensemble is so strong that when the film brings in outside forces to start doling out consequences, the film’s singular tone beings to feel generic and procedural, losing steam at the moment it wants you to be on the edge of your seat.

The editing choices in these moments also feel a bit odd, with some abrupt time skips and key details omitted. It’s clear to see what they were going for, trying to immerse us in Tom’s overwhelmed, exhausted mindset, but it ends up feeling confusing and somewhat incomplete. Still, it’s a solid enough conclusion. And bringing back one particular thread and character from the very beginning in order to mirror the opening is especially satisfying.

‘The Line’ Is a Compelling, Thought-Provoking Film That Will Stick With You

The Line is a movie with a lot to say, but it never feels like a lecture. Its characters will disgust you at times, but there’s a grey area to all of them, and while the film never justifies their actions, it helps you understand their behaviors and confront the deep-seated history and culture that not only allows but encourages these horrendous behaviors. It’s a sophisticated commentary wrapped up in a beer-soaked package and is sure to linger with you long after the credits roll.

Rating: B+

The Line had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.

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