Movie Review: Only the Young
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The camera hovers at a slight distance over Garrison Saenz and Skye Elmore’s faces, almost as if one of them is holding a cellphone at arm’s length to capture their mildly flirtatious conversation in this world of continual self-documentation.
Then the scene cuts to a shot of the two from across the room. And it becomes clear that the kids are being filmed by a third party. But it remains unclear for the first several scenes of Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s “Only the Young” whether the movie is actually a documentary or a narrative feature.
Much of the early confusion of classification comes because Tippet lenses the film with such a steady hand, artfully framing each shot, and it seems hard to believe the movie could be a documentary. Especially one about such a hyperkinetic subject as teenagers. But it is.
Another jolt comes from the lack of exposition. We have no idea who these kids are or why we should be invested in them, but the film immediately interjects us into their mundane suburban lives. Skye tells Garrison that she feels she has been sucked into the black hole of his life — a typical melodramatic teenage statement told with a hint of longing and the hue of a blush.
We meet Garrison’s best friend, Kevin Conway, in the next scene, as the two come skateboarding through the black hole of a drainage pipe, backlit by sunlight at the end of the tunnel. They glide side-to-side in unison to the sounds of Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr’s “You Can’t Blame Me.” The song is the first of several smoothly grooving soul tunes that complement the meandering idyll of adolescence in Southern California and echo the velvety beauty of skateboarding. The soul tunes would end up being a costly choice for the two 20-something filmmakers, but they refused to get rid of the songs after realizing how much they would have to pay for the music rights — a bold and very smart choice.
For the most part, the 70-minute documentary follows the path laid by the first few scenes: The audience watches these teens from a slight remove, as they ponder the problems of their lives; strengthen, fracture and reinforce their friendships; and tromp around (often illegally) abandoned buildings and swimming pools in the town of Santa Clarita, 30 minutes north of Los Angeles.
The refreshing style eschews the use of talking heads, and we never hear Mims or Tippet interacting with the teens, reinforcing the feature feel. Most of the footage of the kids comes from that period between the end of the school day and the dinner bell. As it turns out, Garrison and Kevin aren’t the most fascinating characters in the world. They mumble in a kind of Beavis and Butt-head shorthand and offer odd pieces of confusing folk wisdom such as Kevin’s line about a girl: “You either get it right or you don’t get it at all. And if you don’t get it at all, you don’t make it worse.” All right, then. Much of the boys’ consternation and philosophizing comes from the issue of girls and the burden and joy they offer the guys.
What they lack in startling revelations about the human condition or outlandish behavior, Kevin and Garrison make up for with a vulnerability and a genuine care for one another. The filmmakers do excellent work of never judging or condescending to their subjects. For example, it turns out the boys are both evangelical Christian skateboarders, a fact that is simply presented at face value with no tongue-in-cheek exploration of that subculture.
Some tangents pop up and then fizzle before revealing much about the characters, such as an out-of-state skateboard competition and the impending move faced by one of the boys’ families. The movie wanders at times, but in that way it captures the feeling of these sweet kids as they do their initial dance with love and ignore, resist and grasp at adulthood.
“Only the Young” is an original and handsome work that belies the age of the two young filmmakers behind it. The story sometimes feels like it’s not going anywhere, but adolescence often carries that sense. As all adults know, and what the kids in the movie are about to find out, the real excitement and challenges of life are just on the horizon.