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The Misguided (2018)


The Misguided refuses to be categorized. In the squabbling, knotted-up relationship of twenty-something hustlers/brothers Wendel (Steven J. Mihaljevich) and Levi (Caleb Galati), you’ll find a familiar tragedy in which one criminal sibling pulls the nobler of the two down to his level. When college-bound innocent Sanja (Jasmine Nibali) breaks up with scumbag Wendel and dives into bed with wounded puppy dog (she thinks) Levi, no one would blame you for expecting an alternately sappy and tense love-triangle movie. And as writer/director Shannon Alexander’s camera follows Sanja and Levi on smoky, late-night walks and joy-rides around Perth, there’s no harm in thinking of The Misguided as a kind of Down Under take on Kogonada’s Columbus.

There’s also a “B” plot involving Sanja’s nosy little sister (Katherine Langford) and psychotically protective dad (Athan Bellos), plus a “C” plot about Wendel’s constant struggle between his half-fucked-up self and his fully fucked-up self (sex, drugs, and schemes are his oxygen). I’d like to say the three-pronged drama I described earlier is balanced out by the humor of the mirror-sibling side stories, but even the jokes are off-kilter—ranging from cutesy daddy-daughter dynamics to the can’t-look-away reality-show trainwreck of Wendel’s all-consuming ego.

This may sound like a mess (a hack might call it, “misguided”), but Alexander’s underworld-adjacent ride-along drops us in on a world where the poles of “Have” and “Have Not” fold in on themselves—in which drug deals are mundane, thirty-thousand dollars is a casually replaceable commodity, and love manifests in a barely readable continuum muffled by deceit, abuse, and betrayal. The film isn’t concerned with plot, but it is concerned with making these characters believable—even if contemplating the possibility that there are real Wendels, Levis, and Sanjas walking around might make your head hurt.

Speaking of which, in a climactic scene, Wendel and Levi square off in a playground, roughing each other up to enhance a lie about a drug deal gone bad. As Levi takes blow after blow after blow to the face, Alexander cuts between Wendel’s descending fist and a set of nearby metal rocking horses. In a flash, we see evil overlaid on innocence and wonder what could have caused these boys to become men who became monsters. The humor drains out of the setup, giving way to a profound sadness (and, frankly, squeamishness).

Alexander’s tinkering with our expectations extends to the manner in which he presents his feature debut: The Misguided glitches with pixel banding and split-second stops. Occasionally the camera drifts as if to imply a missed edit; one scene cuts out too soon, for what could be construed as either intentional or unintentional comedic effect. The result is a film that harkens back to the mid-aughts found-footage glut, though Alexander’s aims seem to be much loftier than simply trying to resurrect a trend that began its decline ten years ago.

There’s an audio cue at the very end suggesting this may not be a “movie” at all—rather a corrupted mental hard drive of memory fragments cobbled together by someone addicted to technology, narcotics, and vanity. In that moment, Wendel becomes the rocking horse and we become Wendel: voyeuristic captives to a chaotic past whose best bet is to pick a direction and stick to it.

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