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Categories: Movie Reviews

 Cameron Johnson peers into the world of teen parties with a review of Project X…

Nima Nourizadeh’s Project X was released in 2012 to a polarizing critical response. Some critics called the found-footage high school party tragicomedy “mean-spirited”, “nasty” and “pathetic”; some even went as far as saying the filmmaking was a “disaster” (though that specific comment was made by Peter Travers, who thought the film was funny nonetheless). The few critics who enjoyed, appreciated or at least accepted the film for what it was focused more on the comedic effect, which I find is, really, a weakness of the film.

Admittedly, though, Project X is a film I very much appreciated from start to finish, one that succeeds more when it shows the uncontrollable behavior of the party guests in a light more tragic than comedic. It’s disgusting and deplorable, but that’s the point, and by the end you’ll be shocked and thrilled in ways you never have been before.

The movie includes every stereotypical character you could think of from a teen comedy, with a trio of relatively uncool males leading the charge. The film’s central character is Thomas (Thomas Mann), a regular kid so unpopular even his dad (Peter MacKenzie, reminding me of J.K. Simmons in Juno in his honesty) calls him a “loser”. Thomas’ “best friend” is Costa (Oliver Cooper), a mischievous guy with a big mouth who talks over and over about how epic his former life in Queens was in comparison to his new life in Pasadena. Joining them is Jonathan Daniel Brown’s J.B., the overweight yet confident kid played mainly for laughs (Brown went on to give a fantastic lead performance in the similar Kid Cannabis). Thomas is friends with a beautiful girl, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), and doesn’t know she’s perfect for him. All three are attracted to the school’s most popular girl, Alexis (Alexis Knapp). Dax (Dax Flame) provides the camerawork to allow the film to be found-footage, which works well in giving the film an authentic, guerrilla and frantic feel. project-x-image06

The premise is nothing new. Thomas’ parents are leaving for the weekend for their anniversary and have left him with their old car as a birthday gift. Thomas tells his parents he’s having a few people over for his birthday. His dad reassures his mom that they’re not going to get up to anything crazy. He’s a “loser”, remember? But Costa has other plans in mind. As soon as Thomas’ parents leave, Costa, J.B. and the very nervous Thomas get rolling on organizing a house party. Thomas only wants 20 or 30 people at the party, enough for it to be “cool”. Costa agrees but secretly invites pretty much everyone in the local area to what he plans to be the most epic party in history. He has no idea what they’re in for.

After stealing an ecstasy-filled gnome from one of Costa’s adult friends and inviting a college kid to bring all his friends and alcohol to the party, the three friends return to Thomas’ house to get everything organized. Costa charms the neighbors into thinking the party will be nothing to worry about, and hires two younger kids to work security. They ready the pool, two DJs, a bounce house, and raid the alcohol cupboards. But nothing can prepare them for the riot of a party that is soon to break out and destroy everything they know.

About two-thirds of Project X is an endless montage not unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or Spring Breakers which serves solely to make us laugh, shake our heads, or a combination of the two at the insane antics the boys and their “friends” get up to during what really does end up being the most epic party of all time. The handheld camerawork gives us glimpses of a wide array of unchained behavior, most of it involving some form of alcohol or drugs. Like the two films I compared it to, Project X contains a huge amount of nudity, most of it female, and while it’s certainly funny in places, its attempts are more to shock than to entertain.

The characters are surprisingly dynamic, learning and changing as they journey through their legendary night. Protagonist Thomas, who seems nervous and angry for a lot of the film as he tries to keep things together and stop the inevitable property damage incurred when there are about 1,000 people in one back yard, seems to undergo a tragic downfall as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to stop the party, and goes absolutely crazy, leading to even wilder moments and disdain from his would-be girlfriend Kirby. Following Thomas and his friends as they realize the effects of the party on their reputations and lives allows us see the real repercussions of the event, and since found-footage puts us right in the midst of the action we get a hugely immersive insight into their coming-of-age journey.bud

The dramatic turn the film takes near the end, though, is what really makes it notable. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say that the repercussions come, and they come fast. You could think of many ways in which the party could turn into violent chaos, but Project X seems to throw all of them at us. One spectacular set-piece ignites the film’s fiery climax, just as Thomas is starting to forget all about the reservations he once had for breaking his house. In a fantastically organized sequence that uses a variety of camera techniques to remain creatively within the boundaries of found-footage, the film turns from mostly comic to completely horrific, looking and feeling more like a serious disaster movie than anything remotely reminiscent of comedy, and it’s glorious.

The film pulls comedy fans in with a first act dedicated to celebrating the optimism and rowdiness of a group of extroverted high school seniors, and slowly pulls down the illusion of young invincibility with a series of dangerous and hyperbolized set pieces until it completely destroys any impression of hope for these kids with one of the scariest, most thrilling closing scenes in recent history. Of course, when the film winds down to the resolution they all agree it was worth it, but everyone gets at least what they legally deserve.

Here we have a thorough movie that works not solely to entertain but to completely explore and reveal every aspect of partying, rather than letting the kids have their fun and leave with a slap on the wrist by some bumbling police. Here is a modern Shakespearean tragedy, where a seemingly likable character makes a huge mistake in trusting an overzealous friend and ends up destroying pretty much literally everything around him. For Project X, the party is less an excuse for character development than a developing character in itself, a sort of fictional social experiment.

Many will be repulsed by what’s on display; a film full of unnecessary violence, graphic misogyny and a whole lot of immaturity; it’s a bit much even if it is realistic. The comedy, too, isn’t consistently funny, with maybe two or three big laughs throughout. But if you’re looking to see a movie about partying that develops every side of the story, and provides a load of thrills, you can’t really go wrong with Project X.

There were a lot of stories on the news in the months after the film’s release that told of kids throwing similar parties, where they’d invite thousands of people on social media and cause chaos in the streets. I ask of those kids, did they actually watch this movie? If so, based on how this movie ends, it seems there are a lot of things people are willing to risk in favour of one crazy night. We’ll see what we get when the sequel’s released.

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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