Sundance 2018: The Naughty Teen Flick ‘Assassination Nation’ Is Angry About… Uh… Something

Assassination Nation, which Neon and AGBO picked up this week for $10 million, tries to drape itself in the flag of woke cinema without really knowing what that is. It begins as a hysterical Reefer Madness exposé about extremely online teens, who are constantly using the internet to do newds, before devolving into a Purge-style orgy of pseudo-satirical violence, before finally coming to rest as a yaaas queen female empowerment fable (written and directed by a man, natch, Barry Levinson’s son Sam). Throughout, it constantly confuses characters speaking memes aloud with social commentary and offers a general “politicalness” whose only consistent ideology is being obnoxious. It’s one of those movies whose message (charitably speaking) of “stop *clap emoji* commodifying *clap emoji* women’s sexuality” is somewhat undercut by the almost non-stop sexy violence and sex.

Assassination Nation opens with a trigger warning, promising swearing and nudity (which never comes) and transphobia and rape in a painfully hip montage graphic straight out of a VICE segment about Kids. “Oh boy, rape!” it seems to expect us to say, before a voiceover promises to tell us the “thousand percent true story” of how “Salem lost its motherf*cking mind.”

I’m not sure there’s ever been a good movie that began by sneering about how hard it was going to offend me, and Assassination Nation is only tolerable for about as long as it takes to realize that the Salem in question is the witch place, not the town in Oregon. (Like, what if the witches kicked ass??). It’s also aggressively sensational and transparently not a true story, despite the disclaimer, because telling the truth in your disclaimer is for squares. Are you triggered yet, broseph?

The open inconsistency seems to be justified by the promise that it will annoy the other side (in this case, the uncool) in some perceived culture war — a tactic reminiscent of a certain orange president. Instead of “doing ___ to trigger the libs,” Assassination Nation gives us a kind of “being extra obnoxious to trigger Mike Pence.”

The plot, such as it is, follows Lily (Odessa Young) and her crew of high school cool chicks, who dress like they’re in an ironic fetish porn and communicate entirely in a meme patois so fried they risk fainting from performative boredom. Are there text messages superimposed on the screen? Oh you know it.

Lily spends her days sexting her inexplicably Scandinavian boyfriend (Bill Skarsgard) who won’t go down on her, and an older man to whom she refers only as “Daddy.” One day, the principal calls her into his office to beg her to stop drawing porny naked people in art class. This leads Lily into a long jag about how it’s not the nudity that interests her, it’s the process of taking the perfect selfie, and how the patriarchy expects a smooth labia and whatnot, leaving him temporarily scorched by the heat from her magma hot Truths. Recovering, he tells her how brilliant she is (Levinson congratulating himself on his own dialogue writing, basically) and sends her on her way, begging her to maybe cool it with all the skin pics. Could my teen be doing this? The teens, the nudes, the horror…

At some point the mayor gets hacked, his personal business spread all over the internet, and the whole town finds out he goes to switch-hitting sex parties and wears ladies underwear while he honks off. Which is, like, SO scandalous (enough to warrant an R. Budd Dwyer scene, apparently). Meanwhile, Lily’s transgender friend, Becks (model/actress Hari Nef, one of the stronger actors of the bunch) is hooking up with a hot football hero named “Diamond,” who the girls say is like “the Latino Tom Cruise.”

Do teen girls still use Tom Cruise as a benchmark for hotness? Citation needed. Anyway, that affair goes down largely how you’d expect it to in a sensational movie. Lily also has a friend with a septum piercing (the one-named actress Abra) whose mom is dating a guy who looks “rapey” (an observation followed by a disaffected semi-ironic debate about the word “rapey”) and a white friend played by Suki Waterhouse, who’s both entirely inconsequential to the plot and occasionally hard to distinguish from Lily.

Meanwhile, half the town’s prominent men get hacked, and things start to fall apart. Which looks… well… a lot like The Purge, complete with the masks. It’s hard to tell whether this is a knowing homage or parallel inspiration. As for the hacking plot, it’s a lot like that South Park where everyone gets hacked, only 100% serious and tortuously groping towards some kind of “point,” as it gets progressively more violent and less believable. Assassination Nation tells us that sending newds is somehow both no big deal and will ruin your life forever. It wants to play around with imagery like a gang of dudes preparing to drag someone by the neck behind a truck, and justify it on the basis of a political point it hasn’t quite figured out yet. Arrrrre youuuuuu trigggerrrrred???

The “social commentary” feels exactly as derivative as the rest of the film, like someone artlessly smushing together imagery they’ve seen, a sort of uncanny Muzak of hip provocation written by a less coherent Bret Easton Ellis. It all ends with a character spewing the movie’s “message” (the gist of which is “this is your fault, mom and dad!”) directly into the camera in front of some fluttering American flags, American flag imagery being a sort of one-size-fits-all way to declare something social commentary without analysis.

Assassination Nation feels desperate to be edgy (or maybe I’m just searching for a justification for its unpleasant imagery and grating characters), but it occasionally betrays its inner normie-ness. As in the scenes with Lily’s family, where her dad is a tweedy guy in glasses and her mom a disapproving ponytail, who says things like “I’m not going to sit here and let you … at the dinner table.”

Which is to say, Assassination Nation seems to be in love with its own provocativeness. But it’s only really provocative in comparison to the 1950s nuclear family archetypes it occasionally relies on. It wants to provoke, but probably needed a few more drafts to figure out why.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.