At the beginning of “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) is preparing to introduce her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to her childhood friends for the first time. On the way to a ridiculously expensive vacation home, Bee pours over her cellphone, sizing up the people who know Sophie best through their social media – and sizing herself up in comparison.
“They’re not as nihilistic as they look on the internet,” Sophie promises Bee, assuring her that the cynical front Sophie’s friends put out to the world is all for show. She might as well be speaking directly to the audience, particularly the older members of the crowd. Hey, all you Millennials, Gen Xers, et al., don’t worry – you don’t have to be too scared of the affluent, narcissistic bunch of Gen Zers you’re about to meet.
The line sets the table for the evening we’re about to experience and for the artifice that keeps Sophie and her friends’ fragile social constructs hanging on by a thread. Because while the black comedy of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” does poke fun at our youngest generation, it’s more interested in exploring the ways in which the bonds we’ve had the longest are often the most brittle.
In her English language feature debut, director Halina Reijn creates a disorienting, theatrical experience imbued with an intimacy that doesn’t just crescendo to a breaking point, but snaps multiple times over. No matter what generation you come from, everyone understands that specific type of anxiety – how quickly decades-old wounds can bubble back up to the surface, and how those who are closest to us are also those most equipped to end us with a quick shot to the jugular – theoretically or literally.
Sophie and Bee are on their way to a “hurricane party,” which is exactly what it sounds like (objective: get thoroughly messed up during a hurricane). The party is hosted at the family mansion of Sophie’s best friend David (Pete Davidson). Also in attendance are David’s girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), Sophie’s ex Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), their airhead friend Alice (Rachel Sennott), and Alice’s much older date Greg (Lee Pace).
The gang doesn’t exactly receive Sophie and Bee with open arms. They’re already reeling from the impromptu exit of another friend, Max, the night before, and the arrival of Sophie – who has just finished a stint in rehab and seems to have lost contact with the rest of the group – doesn’t soothe the already simmering tension. Things escalate from there, and when a murder mystery-themed party game ends with an actual dead body, old wounds start to fester and a bitingly funny and deliciously bloody whodunnit ensues.
There’s nothing all that redeeming about most of the characters in “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” and one of the film’s strengths is its ability to keep us invested in the lives of some of the most irritating people to ever grace a movie screen. The film holds a massive amount of contempt for these nasty, self-obsessed rich kids, but somehow you never tire of hanging out with them. A lot of that is achieved through humor, but the film’s direction and camerawork is able to walk a fine line of immersing you into the characters’ shoes while maintaining just enough distance to be critical. The film feels almost like a play, the camera shifting easily from character to character throughout a scene, so close to the action it feels less like a voyeur and more like a character itself.
Cinematographer Jasper Wolf captures much of the film in total darkness, with often the only light coming from phones, flashlights, or glow sticks. When the group splits up, a handheld camera closely follows different characters as they wander aimlessly through the mansion, wayward light splashing across their blood-stained faces and watery, bloodshot eyes much like a camera flash. The shaky, kinetic camera feels primal, illuminating the feral place these kids are hurtling towards. Because the camera is so close to the characters and so ingrained in their orbit, the sprawling design of the mansion feels unknowable. Characters arrive in rooms leaving the audience uncertain of how they got there, and it’s impossible to shake the nagging feeling that anyone could jump out from the shadows at any given moment.
The camera creates a sense of closeness with the characters, but the film’s script keeps the audience far enough away to recognize the narcissism and selfishness at play. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is less of a critique of Gen Z as a whole, and more an opportunity to laugh at the insolence of ultra-wealthy, terminally online young people who can’t see far enough past their own noses to recognize the danger around them. Yet, even though it’s impossible not to laugh at a petty squabble over whether or not one friend is hate-listening to the podcast of another, the film does allow them quieter character moments that make their cutting remarks as the night progresses all the more vicious. The chemistry between the cast members – no doubt cultivated by the single filming location and the amount of the improv allowed on set – is palpable. The group has a real sense of intimacy, and it truly feels like they’ve known each other all their lives – exacerbating the cruelty they can unleash on each other.
Every character is well cast, but as party girl Alice, Rachel Sennott has a particular brand of comedic timing and phrasing that not many performers would be able to nail down this early in a career. Her specific combination of cynicism and genuine warmth brings a texture to the character that stands out, and every other actor is also able to add their own unique brand of authenticity to otherwise fairly standard types. But as Bee, Maria Bakalova has a slightly more challenging task.
Bee is an outsider in so many ways – she doesn’t know anyone but Sophie, she’s not from the United States, she’s not rich – and she is asked to serve as the audience surrogate while simultaneously leaving the audience guessing as to whether she might be the killer after all. Bakalova is enough of a blank slate that she remains a mystery throughout, despite being the character the audience identifies with the most. Her timidity stands in stark contrast with the rest of the cast, and she never quite reaches that same fever pitch. Even around Sophie, Bakalova keeps the characters’ guard up. Despite the revelation that Bee might be keeping a secret, the other characters – as well as the audience – are never quite able to crack or skewer her like they are each other. But of course, how could they? Bee is a stranger, and from the film’s perspective, the only people who could so brutally undo each other in this way, who could fall apart so quickly in the face of such a menacing threat, is a group of best friends.