Being desired and being envied can often be different sides of the same tarnished coin, both evoking the very worst in others and placing an individual in an incredibly dangerous situation, the unwitting victim of the insecure and toxic. Based on William Shakespeare’s timeless play Othello, about the high cost of jealousy, O is the quintessential teen nightmare, imparting valuable lessons on how invaluable trust can be, as well as the irrevocable harm of trusting the wrong people.
Odin James (Mehki Phifer) is living the dream: He is a star athlete at his high school, sharing his basketball team’s MVP award with his friend, Michael (Andrew Keegan), he is an honor student, and he has a great relationship with his faithful girlfriend, Desi (Julia Stiles). Things are going very well in his life… and it’s exactly Odin’s success and happiness that is serving as a thorn in the side of his best friend, Hugo (Josh Harnett). Having the coach, his own father, pass him over for Odin is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Hugo and from that moment onward, he vows to destroy Odin’s life. But he can’t do it alone, and so Hugo proceeds to cook up a plan with Roger (Elden Henson), the Nice Guy™ who poses as a friend but is actually infatuated with Desi. The two tell the dean, who is also Desi’s father, that Odin has raped his daughter, a plan that, although it doesn’t work as planned, does manage to drive a wedge between Desi and her father, as well as sour Odin in the man’s eyes.
Needing to take things up a notch, Hugo then goes on to manipulate and unwittingly recruit his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix), Michael, and Odin himself, whom he knows well enough to exploit his biggest flaw: his jealousy. In one of the most insidious, sadistically brilliant plans to ever be masterminded, Hugo plays everyone around him, pulling their strings like a puppet, savagely tearing into their secrets, exploiting their insecurities, and evading suspicion.
O, in juxtaposition to Everything, Everything, exposes anything and everything that could possibly go wrong with teen romantic relationships. Odin’s only flaw is his jealousy, but being in a relationship with someone who has irrational jealousy is a ticking time bomb. Witnessing Desi walk on eggshells to constantly prove herself to someone whom she’d given no reason to doubt her is cringe-worthy. Odin’s verbal, sexual, and physical abuse of Desi is explained away by this “uncontrollable” jealousy and the audience sees a teenage girl be consistently mistreated by a boy who “loves” her. The sad thing is, Odin isn’t the only man in Desi’s life who’s disrespecting her. There’s her father, who feels that he has a say in her sexual expression and tries to have a say in her sex life. There’s Roger, her “friend” who feels entitled to her body and a relationship with her, and of course, there’s Hugo, who sees her as the ultimate pawn in his power play. In these four men, we see various faces of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and the way that so many young women have their autonomy chipped away by the propaganda, entitlement, and violence of men.
Sadly, it isn’t just the men in her life who are playing Desi. Her friend, Emily, though not privy to Hugo’s real plan, does choose to collaborate with him in playing double agent, lying to, and stealing from Desi, actions that are instrumental to the ultimately tragic conclusions of Hugo’s scheming. The fact is, Desi is a young woman surrounded by toxic, untrustworthy people. Either by word or deed, the people closest to her prove to be dishonest and dangerous. Her relationship with the only person who does treat her with respect, Michael, is exploited and used against her as well. Like Othello before it, O is not as much about the title character as it is about the long-suffering, ultimately fatal loyalty of the woman he loves.
O is about 5 different cautionary tales, all of them valid. We are cautioned against abusive relationships, at any age. We are cautioned against toxic friendships. We are cautioned to take heed of how our intersections can and will be used against us. We are cautioned against entitlement and toxic masculinity. And above all, we are cautioned to take heed of our failings and correct them, lest they consume us and everyone around us. I give this one 4.75 stars.