Back to School Part II #26: Terminal Bliss (dir by Jordan Alan)


There’s been a long-standing rumor floating around the internet that, before she became a star, Sandra Bullock appeared in the 1992’s Terminal Bliss, a film about decadent, upper class teenagers.  Well, having watched the film on YouTube, I can tell you that, unless she’s an extra, Sandra Bullock is not in the film.

That said, she does have a connection to Terminal Bliss.  In 1987, when a 17 year-old aspiring director named Jordan Alan was attempting to raise the money for his film debut, he shot a few scenes and put together a promotional trailer for his unmade film.  Sandra Bullock does appear in that trailer.  Watch it below:

On the strength of the trailer, Alan was able to raise 3 million to make his movie.  (Charmingly, Alan has written that he raised the money while “playing hooky.”)  Alan shot the film in 1989 and there was even some news coverage about this teenager making his directorial debut.

As for the film itself, it appears that it wasn’t released until 1992, presumably to capitalize on the performance of Luke Perry, who, at that time, was starring on Beverly Hills 90210.  According to Wikipedia, the film was not particularly embraced by critics, nor did it do much at the box office.  It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray.

The only reason I knew about Terminal Bliss is because I like to collect those old Screen World Annuals and I came across Terminal Bliss in the back of the 1992 edition.  The name immediately caught my attention, largely because I once used the phrase “terminal bliss” in a poem and was rather unfairly criticized by a creative writing professor who felt I was “trying too hard.”

John Willis's Screenworld Annual (It may say 1993 on the cover but it actually covered the film released in 1992)

John Willis’s Screenworld Annual (It may say 1993 on the cover but it actually covered the film released in 1992)

However, Terminal Bliss is not an easy film to track down.  As I mentioned earlier, I finally found the movie on YouTube but it was the French-language version.  Though I do speak French (though, admittedly, with a Texas accent), I would hardly call myself fluent and, as I watched Terminal Bliss, I came to realize just how rusty my French has gotten.  (I’m definitely going to have to brush up on it, if I end up fleeing to Canada after the presidential election.)  Fortunately, I was able to follow the film enough to review it.

Terminal Bliss tells the story of two teenage friends.  They’re both rich.  They’re both neglected by their parents.  At the start of the film, they both seek escape through drugs.  Alex (Timothy Owen) is the one who often hides his sensitivity behind a wall of cynicism.  John (Luke Perry) is the charming and sociopathic one, the one who lives his entire life seeking to satisfy his own urges.  When he finds out that Alex has a crush on Stevie (Estee Chandler), John responds by introducing Stevie to cocaine and getting her pregnant.  When Stevie has an abortion, an angry Alex checks into drug rehab.  When Alex comes out of rehab, he’s still as angry and as cynical as he ever was.  He continues to hang out with his friends, the most recognizable of which is a drug dealer played by Alexis Arquette.  Alex also continues to be friends with John, despite the fact that John seems to be getting more and more out-of-control in his behavior.  Alex refuses to intervene, saying that John is responsible for his own decisions.  After John rapes Stevie’s sister, he invites Stevie and Alex to join him out at his family’s lake house.  When, over the course of the weekend, John drowns, Alex can only coldly watch.  Why help?  As Alex sees it, John would probably be happier dead anyway…

So, yeah, Terminal Bliss is not exactly a cheerful movie.  In fact, it’s such a dark and borderline nihilistic film that it reminded me of the type of stories that I used to write when I was 17 years old.  Terminal Bliss has “teen trying to be edgy” written all over it but you know what?  That actually works to the film’s advantage.  This is a film about teenagers that was actually made by a teenager and, while it may not be a perfect movie, it is a pretty good example of what the world looks like when you’re 19 and trying to be a cynic.  Say what you will about the film’s storyline, there’s an honesty to its outlook.  Only when you’re 19 would you have the guts to make a commercial movie that was this relentlessly bleak.  That bleakness sets Terminal Bliss apart from a lot of other films that I’ve reviewed for this series.

Because I was watching a dubbed version, I’m not going to try to judge the performances.  But I will say that I really liked the look of Terminal Bliss.  Jordan Alan — who, according to his Wikipedia page, is still working as an independent filmmaker — creates and maintains an almost oppressive atmosphere of ennui.  This is a film that often seems to take place in the shadows and even the liveliest of scenes (a party, a wedding reception) seem to be overcast.  When, at the start of the film, we see Timothy Owen and Luke Perry’s shadowy forms, playing lacrosse on a sunny morning, we’re put right into the proper existential mood.  When the camera focuses on Owen’s often passive face, we feel as if we are looking straight into the heart of ennui.

So, Terminal Bliss does not feature Sandra Bullock but it’s still an interesting artifact of the time in which it was made.

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