Television

The Elemental Appeal of 'The Choking Game'

Mike Ward

A paean to the virtue of arrested development lurks at the core, here, which may be predictable. After all, we’re talking about a Lifetime original movie.


The Choking Game

Airtime: Saturday, 8pm ET
Cast: Freya Tingley, Perl Gilpin, Alex Steele, Ferron Guerreiro
Network: Lifetime
Director: Lane Shefter Bishop
Air date: 2014-07-26
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There’s a reason that busybodies in law enforcement and popular culture have failed all these years to prevent people from chasing altered states of consciousness. It's because they're not looking for what those busybodies might guess, not enlightenment, but something close. They seek perspective.

To derange one’s mind is to shift the core of sentient experience, to live a fleeting time as a different sort of being in a different sort of world. Such achievement may not tell us anything about the nature of God or eternal existence (if there are such things), but it does tell us something about our ordinary lives, by giving us something to which to compare them.

This yearning for perspective is largely separate from any desire for emotional kicks or sexual gratification, which is why the efforts of buzz-scare films from Reefer Madness to the current title under consideration, The Choking Game, tend to be clumsy, and to fail. They take these desires to be cost-benefit calculations. If a dangerous activity that alters consciousness has a certain chance of making someone feel good, the reasoning goes, that same someone will be dissuaded from the activity if convinced there’s an equal or greater chance it could make him feel bad instead, or a minute possibility it could make him feel very, very bad indeed.

There’s more at stake than feeling good, though. There’s an elemental appeal to these activities, one less rational than visceral. Where a movie like Reefer Madness misses this point entirely, Choking Game -- premiering on Saturday, 26 July -- at least pays it lip service.

Taryn (Freya Tingley) is neither a bored degenerate nor a born-yesterday naïf readily corrupted by the peddlers of vice at her sprawling, impersonal suburban high school. She is instead an intelligent, well-adjusted young woman just at the age of majority, nursing a keen, sober awareness of her degraded surroundings. That’s just the trouble. When she squares off with popular Courtney (Ferron Guerreiro) in the girls' room and the latter asserts they enjoy an elevated status above the school’s “general population”, Taryn’s clever enough to get the metaphor.

Lacking the resources and artistry of, say, Gus van Sant's Elephant, The Choking Game has to make do with such explicit representation, but it does so well enough. The girls' school resembles a prison not only in its institutional particulars but also in its general uniformity. Many of their classmates have been shuffled from one community to another and found them all to be the same.

In the school bathroom, Taryn proffers aid to Nina (Alex Steele), a poised and captivating beauty who has crumpled in a heap on the filthy floor of a toilet stall. Unembarrassed, Nina explains she’s down there chasing a mysterious buzz, one like drugs or alcohol except it’s less social lubricant than spiritual exploration. We know right off this will pique Taryn’s interest.

There follows a long fact-finding second act -- an unnecessary one, as it turns out, since the movie’s title reveals the big secret -- and events lead Taryn and her new best friend to her bedroom together, her reluctant thumbs on Nina’s carotid and jugular. Nina passes out. She stays out long enough to provoke a rising wild panic in Taryn, who shrieks and shakes Nina’s limp body and finally fumbles her cell phone to call for an "ambo".

Lucky Nina, though comes to just in time, and does so with clouds in her eyes. Taryn just got her nearer than she’s ever been to whatever mystical state she’s pursuing with this ritual. “When you come close to the edge,” Nina explains, meaning the edge of control, possibly the edge of mortality, “you don’t care about all that crap anymore.” Meaning the crap of high-school politics, of youthful hormones, of living in the wasteland.

Taryn’s sold. Soon she’s passing out with the best of them, at both Nina’s hand and her own. At first this looks to be just another routine form of risky youth behavior. (Courtney, we later learn, is also a choking aficionado, though she’s doing it simply because everyone else is.)

It has a curious effect on Taryn, however. She appears, though it’s doubtful this is what the moviemakers intended, to be developing at a supernatural rate, as if she’d been whisked through a teleporter with a common housefly. Where she was previously submissive, now she starts making firm but reasonable demands for autonomy from her helicopter parents. (I think we’re meant to think she’s becoming volatile.) Where she once dressed inattentively, and as though still awaiting puberty, now she's paying careful regard to her personal appearance and presenting herself as a woman of maturity and self-esteem. (I think we’re meant to think her morals are becoming loose.)

Her grades sink, not due to the notorious neurological damage these practices are rumored to inflict, but because she now sees how arbitrary and execrable it is to assign incremental values of worth to human beings. (It’s pretty clear what we’re meant to think here.)

In tune with her sexuality for the first time, Taryn makes a passionate pass at longtime crush Ryder (Mitch Ainley). This sparks a fusillade of slut-shaming from the young man. He opines to the effect that, though he shares her desires, he’d prefer she kept them to herself, and complains about her new style of dress. What happened to the frumpy kid he’d loved in elementary school?

This unconsidered paean to the virtue of arrested development lurks at the ideological core of Choking Game, which may be predictable. After all, we’re talking about a Lifetime original movie, not an HBO documentary or a Richard-Linklaterian excursion into the veritable recesses of the adolescent mind.

Yet The Choking Game does passably well as high-school melodrama, especially considering its made-for-TV pedigree. It eludes many of the genre’s clichés, though it succumbs to just as many more: alpha femme Courtney seems beamed straight from an Asylum studios reimagining of Heathers, for instance. The childhood friend whom the suddenly worldly Taryn must abandon could have been lifted from Can’t Buy Me Love or Christine.

Once you’ve made peace with the fact that the film isn't going to be breaking new ground, these familiar pieces make it a little more fun to watch. Who doesn’t like to get out the list from time to time and follow along as a genre flick ticks all the boxes?

Still, those boxes limit how the movie can represent the choking game. About a million years ago I engaged in activities I’d be better off not describing, so I happen to know what the choking game is like. When the loss of consciousness is total (and there’s a trick to ensuring this the film is wise not to reveal), the sensation on coming to is that of waking up without having gone to sleep.

Because your short-term memory is affected, your now unfamiliar surroundings sink anew into your senses. It might be akin to being born, if one could do so not as an infant but as a fully grown adult. It might be like what a computer feels when it becomes self-aware.

Though the practice is prohibitively dangerous, this result, it must be acknowledged, reveals much about first-order existence that’s otherwise impossible to describe (as the efforts above suggest). At the same time, it’s also an extension of activities that are perfectly ordinary among the younger set, different more in quantity than in kind from rolling down a hill or twirling on a merry-go-round until you can’t tell up from down.

Such urges are only dangerous when the need to flee reality so as to better grasp it becomes too urgent. For this reason, the best course of action for busybodies is not to try to discourage escapism through brute-force propaganda, but to create communities and places of learning that adolescents won’t be quite so desperate to escape.

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