The line in The Line — the mesmerizing new film from Ethan Berger that stars Alex Wolff and premieres at the Tribeca Festival today — refers to a lineup of fraternity pledges about to be hazed. But there’s a secondary meaning, too.
“It’s also the moral line,” says Berger. “It’s about how people pledge allegiance to institutions that have no allegiance to them. And it’s about how Americans, I feel, have this tendency to value institutions over the lives of their neighbors.”
Wolff, best known for Hereditary, plays Tom, a fraternity boy desperate to be accepted by his more affluent fraternity brothers. He’s well liked and respected, but his roommate and best friend (“of a year,” Berger pointedly notes) takes issue with a new pledge, setting off a grim chain of events.
The Line Director Ethan Berger on the Value of Unsympathetic Characters
The Line takes lots of creative risks, and they pay off. It makes little effort, for example, to make us like Tom or any of his fraternity brothers, who casually spew homophobic slurs and seem to have few ambitions beyond promoting themselves and each other. But Berger and his team keep you engaged by keeping you invested in how far the frat boys will go, and what lines they will and won’t cross.
“My favorite movie of all time is All That Jazz. And Roy Schneider is flawed in it, but captivates me,” says Berger. “I love Scorsese stuff from the ’70s and ’80s, like King of Comedy. And The Last Detail was a huge source of inspiration for us, where [Jack] Nicholson and [Randy] Quaid are not necessarily likable.”
He’s confident that viewers can separate a character’s beliefs from a film’s.
“I think audiences are smart, and that they don’t necessarily need protagonists who reflect their own point of view,” he says.
His actors — including Wolff and Eastbound & Down‘s Bo Mitchell, who plays his blustering, violent roommate — didn’t need much convincing to play unlikable characters, Berger says. Perhaps the only purely sympathetic character in The Line is played by The Little Mermaid star Halle Bailey. John Malkovich also turns up in a brief but memorable role, and Austin Abrams (Euphoria) pops as a pledge who won’t show deference to his not-so-elders.
The Line is Berger’s feature directorial debut, and it’s a long time coming. The script, which he co-wrote with Zack Purdo and Alex Russek, goes back to 2012. Casting came together in 2018, and Covid was no help: The Line shot during the Omicron wave, and required 24 members of the crew to be replaced over the roughly 20 days of shooting.
What kept Berger going, he says, was the hope that his film might inject a little skepticism into the minds of young viewers who may, like Tom, be too impressed by institutions.
“After we wrote this, we would see something in the news every year that was similar” to what happens in the film, he says. “And it was like, like, maybe if this comes out, like, some kids will think about whether or not this is worth it.”
Berger wasn’t in a fraternity, but he did live next door to one. Which explain why the 1998 Eiffel 65 dance song “Blue” pops up throughout The Line.
“During their Hell Week, they played ‘Blue’ on repeat for the pledges living in the house. And so that was something that I took, because I observed it happen,” he says.
The Line is now playing at the Tribeca Festival.
Main image: Alex Wolff as Tom, surrounded by his fraternity brothers in The Line, by Ethan Berger.