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Controversial CLUB ZERO Is All About Misunderstood Kids It Fundamentally Misunderstands


“Doctors” and “health experts” who preach the benefits of starvation are not a modern phenomenon. In 1912, a phony doctor named Linda Hazzard was convicted of the manslaughter of Claire Williamson, a wealthy British woman who weighed only fifty pounds at the time of her death. Willliamson was a devout believer in Hazzard’s claims that fasting would rid the body of all toxins, therefore curing it of disease; nevermind that Williamson was in perfect health before seeing Hazzard. Later, it was proven that Hazzard had stolen many of Williamson’s valuables, and even forged Williamson’s will to claim Williamson’s assets for herself. 

If Hazzard were around today, she would be running a multimillion dollar health and wellness empire. More recently, Gwenyth Paltrow caught some heat for a viral video in which she promoted a controversial diet of bone broth and coffee. A “wellness” influencer before that was even a thing, Paltrow built Goop, a 250 million dollar “modern lifestyle brand,” preying on the insecurities of young women for monetary gain. 

Hazzard and Paltrow are examples of women who have acute financial motivations to dupe more naïve people into starving themselves; nefarious motivations that are ripe for a satirical skewering. Unfortunately, Jessica Hausner is unable to pin down and really nail a single substantial subject in her newest satire, CLUB ZERO. Severe eating disorders egged on by con artists have real causes and effects, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. Hausner winks at a class critique, and even gets close to a few human moments, but she’s too caught up in the style of the film to figure out what she wants to say. The film is stylish; the food looks great, the school uniform aesthetic works, and the actors are all very beautiful. There are plenty of smart disturbing moments—some of them darkly funny—but they aren’t earned. 

Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), the new nutritionist teacher at a fancy British boarding school, is such a saint that she is willing to dupe her students into starving themselves for free, out of the sheer kindness of her heart. She is not a financial fraudster, but a teacher who pours her whole life into her students. Somehow, she genuinely believes in the shit she’s shoveling down the children’s throats. At no point do we learn where Miss Novak came from, or how she came to discover and/or develop the concept of “Conscious Eating.” Miss Novak has developed her own version of skinny tea, but the satire is lost since she gives it away for free: the inherent comedy of skinny tea is that it is pushed on consumers to make a profit. Her class all starts off innocently enough. Miss Novak engages the kids in beneficial meditation and breathing exercises, and the principal, Ms. Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is pleased with the class. Of course, it isn’t too long before Miss Novak is encouraging them to eat as little as possible, and then to stop eating altogether. 

Club Zero movie screengrab

The children of the Conscious Eating class, at least most of them, are all too happy to be filled with Miss Novak’s nonsense. In theory, Miss Novak is providing solutions to real problems: global warming could truthfully be mitigated by less meat consumption, and it is true that there is a glut of questionable chemicals in our food nowadays. The kids all have their own individual reasons for participating in Conscious Eating. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) is already a seasoned bulimic, Ragna (Florence Baker) wants to improve her fitness, Helen (Gwen Currant) cares about the environment, the misfit Fred (Luke Barker) needs a friend group, and Ben (Samuel D Anderson), the lower class kid, needs the grade for his scholarship. 

The most coherent argument I could make in favor of this movie would be Hausner’s poking fun of the rich parents for ignoring their kids so much that they’re unable to identify major problems until it’s too late. Any self respecting adult should be able to look at Miss Novak’s website and see a load of hot garbage, but Ragna’s parents are the ones who brought her on board in the first place. The parents are all so self involved that they don’t notice that their kids have stopped eating— Fred’s parents are all the way on a retreat in Ghana, and Elsa’s mom already encourages her abstinence from food. The only parent who notices an issue, the only character in CLUB ZERO with common sense, as well as the only one whose motivations are clear, is Ben’s mom. Since she’s the only one without gobs of money, her one pleasure is to cook for Ben, so it’s devastating for her when Ben stops eating. Ben’s mom is a character we can root for, but her character isn’t afforded enough screentime to make a difference on the outcome.

The problem with CLUB ZERO is not the controversial content, but with Hausner’s reliance on aesthetics to cover up her lack of focus and inherent misunderstanding of how kids’ minds work. There is one moment in particular between Miss Novak and Fred that indicates Hausner’s feeble grasp on the kinds of characters she is exploring. Even with an unfocused “message,” the film could have been saved by characters with clearer motivations. Ben was only faking being into “Club Zero” to get into Elsa’s pants, or Fred needed Miss Novak’s affection to fill the void left by his absent mother, or Elsa wanted to impress her mother, or Ragna wanted to shove it to her parents. The seeds of these ideas are planted, and none are allowed to grow. Yes, kids are malleable and are therefore the perfect subjects for a poisonous “Conscious Eating” agenda, but kids in real life have wills of their own accord. The ensemble of CLUB ZERO is not interested in the Internet, or television, or sex or anything else that modern teenagers are actually focused on. Yeah, kids care about the environment and develop eating disorders, but Hausner may have overestimated how much kids are willing to be influenced by their teachers.

Katarina Docalovich
Katarina Docalovich is your average overly educated, under-employed Brooklyn transplant who takes film photos, talks too much about the French New Wave, and goes to the movies 3 times a week.


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