by Ken Bakely
Anyone who’s been out of high school for any amount of time can tell you that memories of those years begin rapidly fading from your mind roughly 30 seconds after you toss your cap in the air at graduation. It’s a feeling of the past and the future colliding and absorbing the present that stretches back to those final few weeks before you get your diploma. This is the world that Olivia Milch’s Dude inhabits, tracking best friends Lily (Lucy Hale), Chloe (Kathryn Prescott), Amelia (Alexandra Shipp), and Rebecca (Awkwafina) as they enter the home stretch of senior year. Though they’ve forged their friendships through their comfortably laid back, stoner lifestyles, their dynamics are tinged with extra emotional weight, while they deal with the sudden death of Chloe’s brother Thomas (Austin Butler), killed in a car accident several months ago.
Milch tries to give everyone their due, but her attention shifts to Lily, the group’s resident overachiever, who strives to balance an impending move across the country for college and enjoying the possibilities of now. Her sporadic attempts at forging a relationship with the sweet, nerdy Noah (Alex Wolff) are juxtaposed with Rebecca’s forthright desire for a teacher, as she counts down the hours to graduation when she can make a move without violating obvious ethical and legal boundaries. It’s an unsteady blend of these characters’ respective traits, one more comedic than the other, and representative of a greater issue. Dude embraces its lowbrow humor as the four girls make jokes about their sex lives through clouds of pot smoke. But it’s harder to buy into the movie’s groove when Milch returns to a serious look of its many underlying themes.
This is most evident about halfway through the film, when a throwaway party suddenly turns horrifying when Lily is raped by a drunken jock. The assault is presented with an effective frankness, and the following scenes show her lost in a haze, unable to articulate to others what she’s going through, as pre-existing stresses are only magnified. But as meaningful as these sequences are, augmented by Hale’s capable and varied lead performance, they’re also quite limited. Milch drops the subplot, moves back into the pastiche of lukewarm dramedy, and only re-acknowledges her protagonist’s rapist in a late callback that’s so grossly oversimplified that it borders on being flat-out insulting. A traumatic plot development gets wrapped up with a bit of glorified slapstick comedy, as Dude decides that it adheres to cartoonish moral equivalencies.
Yet this doesn’t seem to be as outwardly diminishing as it is a result of an overcluttered script. It’s always clear that Milch cares for her characters, and directs her actors with the sensitivity and insight to match. For all the occasions that the film lives in a lively authenticity, there are others that come from a 90 minute movie trying to do too much. Careening between divergent tones, filling up its runtime with as many notations and accentuations as possible, Dude’s efforts to emulate the high school’s liminal last days become a rambling series of casually related scenes.
Milch shows her strengths in comedy and drama, though she can’t reconcile the extremes to which she carries things. Only isolated ideas stick: the funniest jokes, the most realized emotional hardships, the warm chemistry of individual bonds (Lily and Noah in particular). A title like Dude indicates that the movie intends to emphasize its levity to viewers. That’s not a bad place for it to go, yet it further highlights its tonal shortcomings. Fleshing out individual strengths and carrying them through would make for a stronger, focused movie. These characters are multi-dimensional and entertaining, and they could carry almost any story. Here’s a film made by a promising storyteller who makes good use of a talented cast. However, it falters with a shotgun approach: ready to go in any direction, it goes in every direction instead.