A few years ago, the Russian media bombarded with news about the so-called “Blue Whale challenge” which, allegedly, has led to the suicides of many teenagers in the country. The “Blue Whale” consists of 50 challenges over 50 days; the first tasks are innocuous (“Wake up during the night.” or “Watch a scary movie.”), but over time, things get more and more malevolent (“Climb on the edge of a roof.” or “Draw a whale on your hand with a razor blade.”) and so on until the fiftieth day when the “game” tells you to kill yourself. Following the cases in Russia, casualties have been reported in many other countries.
At the end of 2016, a 21-year-old Russian man was arrested on suspicion of creating the “game”. He admitted everything, calling the challenge a way to cleanse society of biodegradable waste. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and everything seemed to be over. Nonetheless, the peculiar fact remained – neither the police nor the investigative journalists have been able to prove that any of the suicides are associated with such a pervasive challenge. The fact is, though, that adolescents suffering from severe depression are quite likely to create groups on social media wherein they share their feelings and employ the “blue whale” as a metaphor for their condition. And the journalists seemed to have moulded obscure pieces of information into a coherent story that never happened. According to relatives of the imprisoned Russian man, he’s simply a guy who used the shock factor of his publications in various online groups to gain as many followers as possible and to promote his sinister music.
Moreover, many copycat-teenagers have actually started organising such challenges, following what the journalists have ostensibly “discovered”. The film 50 revolves around a teenage girl who challenges a boy on WhatsApp. This is my favourite film from Venice this year, portraying one of the most original and frenzied love stories and discussing domestic violence, depression and lack of love for life in an unprecedentedly elegant way.
17-year-old Elisa (Karla Coronado) gives Felix (José Antonio Toledano) a different challenge every day. One of them is to figure skate with a random girl. She finds Felix at the ice rink and lies to him that she, as a participant in the game, has the same challenge. The two become close and decide to perform each task together—even number 50.
When Elisa and Felix aren’t together, the film divides the screen in two, wherefrom the viewer observes the relationship of each character with their parents whilst the latter are deliberately shot from the back or not in the frame at all. Therefore, 50 informs us that whatever happens to the two teenagers, their parents are to blame; they have always been invisible to their children, and even if they guide them in life now, no one will listen to them, and, frankly, there’s nothing to be heard. Their remarks are incredibly banal (“You have to eat your food!”, “You can’t leave the table until everyone’s done eating!”, “What did you do today? (pause) Oh, okay.”) and, thoroughly blinkered, they don’t sense that their children have been abused.
As the curator of the game, Elisa messages Felix, telling him that the next task is to kill somebody. She steals her stepfather’s gun, then the two meet and start shooting at moving cars. Suddenly, the monotonous Felix revives his life energy. Vitality, agility and purposefulness, all come to light. People get out of their cars and start chasing them, and Felix, completely encapsulated by his straightforward aggression, continues to shoot at them. This meteoric change in him occurs just because he’s trying to protect Elisa. Ordinarily, his life mission is not to have one until life somehow concludes. When the “game” had begun, he probably thought “Whatever, I’ll commit suicide.” and is fully prepared to do so. Not that anything would change if he doesn’t since, for him, causing (one’s own) death has no emotional connotation. It’s a neutral feeling. Exactly what he feels when he feeds his Venus flytrap with a few flies. Nothing. Felix is an extreme personification of that part of the youngsters who can’t find exciting reasons to live and just wait for a change. Unlike Anders in Oslo, August 31st, who “utilises” the film to look for reasons not to commit suicide, Felix doesn’t give a fig. And it’s his parents’ fault.
Elisa is an even more enthralling character. Occasionally, in conversation with Felix, she mentions that her stepfather has “touched her more or less”. Let’s pause for a sec. What screenwriting structures are we used to when victim-characters deal with trauma? The victim confronts myriad problems, but even a slight resolution seems impossible, s/he weeps frequently, and towards the end is victimised to such an extent that even his/her mortal enemy would shed a tear (e.g. Philadelphia, The Hunt, The Green Mile). However, 50 doesn’t depict the victim’s trauma or her battle with the “culprit” evidently, and hence the seemingly bizarre goal – to commit suicide. According to studies, the victim of sexual violence, due to the crippling of his/her ego as a person with autonomous actions and initiative, doesn’t believe in his/her abilities anymore and loses control easily. Elisa has tried to take her own life before, but she has failed because of posttraumatic fear and incertitude. She has created the “game” to find someone with whom she would feel safe enough to achieve her goal. And with the progression of the challenges, she tests Felix’s suitability:
“Do you want to eat pizza?” ➜ “Do you want to go to the roof?” ➜ “Do you want to kill someone?” ➜ “Do you want to kill ourselves?”
The increase in her confidence is most noticeable after the shooting scene – when they’re on the bus, going home, kissing as awkwardly and cutely as two kids would kiss for the first time. This sense of “child-likeness”, intertwined with the extremely manipulative way to achieve her goal, perpetuate the film as an awfully ungodly but beautifully innocent romance. Which clearly deserves global distribution.