Review: Serena Ryen Scores High With HIGH SCORE ~ A Stunning Probe Into The Origin and Face Of Extremist Rage

Serena Ryen's HIGH SCORE is a stunning probe into the origin and face of extremist rage. World premiere at the Chelsea Film Festival, October 15-18.

By: Sep. 18, 2020
Review: Serena Ryen Scores High With HIGH SCORE ~  A Stunning Probe Into The Origin and Face Of Extremist Rage

In 2018, I reviewed a remarkable short film ~ Serena Ryen's CASHED, a poignant portrayal of a millennial coping with the unrelenting pressures of big city life that has since received its well-deserved share of awards and is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

What stood out for me then as it does now with the forthcoming release of her new film, HIGH SCORE, is the sensitivity and acuity with which Ryen, in collaboration with her team of exceptional artists, probes the deeper dimensions of human behavior and shapes compelling narratives about souls in distress. She does so while effectively placing her story-telling in the context of critical social issues and fulfilling her commitment "to making art that inspires empathy and ignites questions."

In HIGH SCORE, Ryen, co-director Ethan Itzkow, and director of photography, Jorge Arzac team up again, now to deliver a supercharged profile of what very well may be a shooter in the making.

The impetus for this film ~ for its exploration of the psychology and disease of hate ~ goes conscience-deep.

On the one hand, it reacts to a series of profoundly gut-wrenching and dissonant episodes in American life (synagogue shootings in Poway CA and Pittsburgh PA, the unlawful detainment in detention centers of Central American immigrants, and the epidemic of white supremacist violence).

It represents also, as the film makers explain, the "need to expose the interconnectedness of racist conspiracy theories, dangerous political rhetoric, and the violence that ferments in internet echo chambers when they intersect."

The story centers on a twenty-something man (played with astonishing intensity by Itzkow) who, when we first meet him, manifests the signs of alienation and grievance. An apparent loner. Estranged from his family. Compulsively posting epithet-laden comments until the system blocks him from further posting. A figure who is on the escalator to further aggravation and discontent. Stewing!

When he arrives at work for a performance review, his boss brands him as an LPE (low performance employee) and reprimands him for inappropriate and offensive remarks about fellow workers. He recoils at what he feels is an unjustified rebuke. He sees himself as a victim of a demon (and, in a moment of stunning visual effect, the boss's countenance matches his perception of the wicked witch of oppression). (Demonization of "the other" has become the currency of social discourse!) A ferocious outburst gets him fired.

This conference room scene is the cauldron in which the boiling of this man's rage commences and is fueled further upon his return to his apartment.

On the edge, spurned by the tyranny of political correctness and discriminated against and replaced by what he identifies as a "foreigner;" he seeks refuge and validation in the dark web of conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic libels, and fear-mongering about caravans of invaders at the border.

Someone out there in the blogosphere notices his angst and is ready to exploit it. OUTHERENOTICING2019 directs him to, a site that spews the canard of the "Jewish take-over of America," an evil conspiracy that aims to cripple the American economy by backing the "mass migration agenda" as evidenced by the caravans of immigrants approaching the border. And so it goes! Enough to unravel the most vulnerable and impressionable of minds!

Feeling empowered by his online alliance with the dark side, he becomes a "ride driver," whereupon he rejects riders based on their ethnicity until his employer notices. He begrudgingly accepts riders of different persuasions but not without insulting them in fits of venom.

Penalized again (in his mind unjustly), his short fuse gets shorter.

The camera overlays his ferocious assaults on furniture with images of chaos, epithets, and violence in the streets of our cities.

He understands that his sense of self can be validated and magnified simply by working towards a high score of acts of hate. So he's been told and encouraged by his anonymous sponsors in the web. Chilled to the bone, we are left to wonder what he will do next.

And we are left to wonder what we can do to unravel the madness, this crisis of mental infirmity and social dysfunction, and return to balance and sanity.

Kudos to the entire company! Itzkow, doing double duty, fires up the screen with a stunning portrayal of a man unhinged. The cast and crew are filled out "almost entirely by artists from communities targeted by white supremacy." Backed by Symaluz's original score and additional music by Dave Cohen, the film's tension is amplified and palpable.

HIGH SCORE is a serious and important contribution to our ongoing public conversation about hate, racism, and demonization in America. In the course of a sizzling 15-minutes, in what is aptly described as a "social horror film," we are eyewitness to the combustible nature of these terrible forces.

At the same time, we may be struck by an irony that is best hinted at in a quote cited at the beginning of the film from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."

In this regard, Ryen's genius in constructing this film is that while she compels us to be terrified by the man's emerging rage, she also forces us to recognize how consumed he is by pain and how that pain can morph into hate. Can we have sympathy for the devil? The film then, I think, requires us to ask what must be done to reverse the pain and fear and anxiety in our society that becomes the fodder for the purveyors of hate and disruption.

HIGH SCORE: 15 minutes of bold and courageous film-making that ought to incite hours of thoughtful conversation and constructive action. A superlative piece of film-making!

HIGH SCORE will have its world premiere at the Chelsea Film Festival and will screen online from October 15th - 18th.

Photo credit to Krystal Manuel

Schmeh Films ~