THE STORY – A teacher takes a job at an elite school and forms a strong bond with five students – a relationship that eventually takes a dangerous turn.
THE CAST – Mia Wasikowska, Florence Baker, Ksenia Devriendt, Luke Barker & Samuel D Anderson
THE TEAM – Jessica Hausner (Director/Writer) & Géraldine Bajard (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
Forget about all the keto and paleo diets, fasting teas, Ozempic injections, and other fads that have come out over the years. The latest and greatest trend among Gen Z is being as environmentally conscious as possible, which could mean purposefully starving oneself, as seen in Jessica Hausner’s latest film, “Club Zero.”
There’s always fascinating commentary to be made around health and wellness, especially in this age of Instagram influencers apparently knowing all there is about nutrition or at least being paid to market some new pill or diet. Hausner takes that concept and puts a more sinister lens on it when the messaging comes from a trusted person in children’s lives. But along the way, the script loses where it’s headed and leaves audiences with half-filled appetites and starving for more.
Set at an exclusive school where everyone wears the same drab yellow T-shirts and shorts, a charismatic nutrition teacher Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska), has recently joined the staff. Right off the bat, though, it’s clear that a mini cult is forming behind her classroom walls. The big thing she’s pushing to her students is “conscious eating,” which boils down to eating less to help the planet and rid the body of toxins. With beef production being among the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gasses, her approach makes sense in the beginning, as does her enthusiasm for meditation and mindfulness.
The group of students assembled around her seems like the perfect additions to this movement, as they all express that they want to reduce their personal consumption, lose weight or just get a full-ride scholarship. It all seems like fuel for the mysteriously strange but caring Ms. Novak, played with controlled restraint by Wasikowska, who sends shivers down your spine with her all-smiling, eerily calm performance. She never yells at these children when they stray from their new eating habits, but she exudes the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” attitude that really does them in.
The further along they go in the program, the more sinister things get. Ms. Novak introduces them to mono-eating, limiting meals to just one type of food and then refraining from eating altogether in order to join the exclusive Club Zero. The more time we spend with the group of kids, the more we learn why they may have been scouted out (it’s not entirely clear how they joined the group). There’s Fred (Luke Barker), a ballet dancer whose parents are away and who has diabetes, who discovers eating less could mean getting off of insulin. There’s Ragna (Florence Baker), a trampoline gymnast who already struggles with her weight and body image stressed upon her by her mother. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) is already bulimic, and the program gives her even more reason to continue unhealthy eating habits. When some don’t follow the program, like Ben (Samuel D. Anderson), who always goes for a chocolate bar and eats his mother’s (Amanda Lawrence) grand meals, the other students step in with their cult energy and pressure him to have faith in it all. Markus Binder’s percussive score also adds to these group-think moments, making its haunting and conniving presence very clear.
The commentary the film provides on several topics – body image, eating habits, corrupting young minds – is vital given the constant stimuli young people are facing from social media and the image they think they should have in today’s world. Elsa, in one bedroom scene with her parents, terrifyingly shows just how far gone she is in her thinking, all charged by someone who she trusts and admires. But overall, the story loses much of its intended goals toward the end. Is it trying to put the blame on teachers or institutions for corrupting young minds? Are parents who seem so eager to let other people deal with their children the problem?
Interestingly enough, there’s no mention of social media in the film, nor do the children ever seem to engage with it, wholly ignoring a significant factor in modern society pertaining to the issues the film wants to explore. Making light of these struggles, especially as these children’s bodies look so pale and skinnier by the day, will also make for an uncomfortable watch for many (there is a disclaimer placed at the beginning of the film for those who may find this subject matter’s depiction challenging to watch). Still, this movie is meant to be hard to swallow. The script also introduces an inappropriate relationship side-plot between Ms. Novak and one of her students that comes out of left field and doesn’t go anywhere, only further cluttering the story.
Despite its flaws, “Club Zero” still does leave audiences with something to chew on. Even if it’s an absurd example, Hausner’s film doesn’t steer too far from what eating disorders can mentally, emotionally, and physically do to people, especially young minds. It’s an uneven but necessary cautionary tale that hopefully continues a much-needed conversation.