There is almost a Terrence Malick-like air of mystery around “Only The Young.” The press notes don’t reveal much except what you’ll already know going into the movie: that it’s about the lives of three teenagers in a Southern California town, that is named in the film, but that we forgot by time it came to write this review. And really, it doesn’t matter. Like the aforementioned director, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims are less concerned about providing a comprehensive narrative to their documentary (a term that can only be applied very loosely), and more focused on capturing a sensation and snapshot of a moment. They succeed with quiet authority, crafting a film at times lovely, melancholy, funny and always compelling.
Trying to summarize the movie and what it’s “about” misses the point to a certain degree, but the filmmakers follow Garrison and Kevin, two best friends in the last months of their final year of high school, as they spend nearly free moment together. They semi-squat an abandoned house with plans to turn it into a punk rock venue, find their relationship tested by girls — or rather, a girl, Garrison’s best friend Skye — and more than anything else, they love to skateboard. In the latter department, it’s Kevin who has the leg up, with his talents good enough to find him entered in a skate contest in Arizona, where the top prize is $25,000. But it’s fitting with the overall tone of the picture, that Tippet and Mims dedicate more footage to the journey to get there, than the actual event.
One might call this an observational film, and it’s best described as a video scrapbook. Tippet and Mims are fine with re-arranging the order of the footage they captured, if only to give the story of these kids an “arc.” While some may wag their fingers that this is manipulative or dishonest, it’s in service of a larger emotional truth, and it’s done with such care you may not even notice it happening. Perhaps most impressive of all is the look of the picture, one that eschews the generally ugly handheld, thoughtlessly framed, TV-indebted work this genre usually trades in for feature-film-worthy shots. The directors gorgeously evoke the vacant beauty of a suburb, from empty swimming pools and skateparks, to those strange places on the fringes, where nature and industrialization awkwardly meet. The pair are always fully aware of the geography they’re shooting, making the most of it and again, while some purists may decry that these are contrived shots and not in the moment, there are broader feelings Tippet and Mims are seeking to capture.
If anything “happens” in the film, it’s mostly that the relationship between the three young people ebbs and flows as new boyfriends and girlfriends enter and leave the picture and the trio struggle with their faith. Yes, faith. Handled delicately but also penetratingly, we quickly learn that each of these kids are evangelical Christians, belonging to the kind of church that advises them if they think whomever they’re dating is not as committed to the Lord as they should be. Their love for Jesus is without question very important in their lives; at one point, Skye’s boyfriend Robin explains their mutual faith is one of the reasons their relationship works so well. But with parents and authority figures mostly kept out of the frame, the question is raised how much this faith is a product of their upbringing that they’ll later shake off once they leave home, simply a comfortable identifier for teens who are seeking to define themselves. One wonders if the punk rock loving Garrison — who is constantly sporting shirts and patches with Black Flag, Minor Threat and Crass on them — realizes the inherent disconnect between the music he loves and the faith he carries.
“Only The Young” lets these questions linger, because the filmmakers realize that when you’re seventeen there are no answers, and that life is about how we can adapt to the things we can’t control. A sudden change in Skye’s situation shakes her to the core, while Kevin is decidely more blasé about where his life will head once he graduates, he is confident that he will remain friends with Garrison. Watching with the wisdom of nearly being a couple decades removed from those turbulent, exciting, swooning years when love comes and goes, and friendships fracture and heal quickly, there is no doubt that Tippet and Mims got it right. “Only The Young” captures the spirit of the moments that create memories that last a lifetime. [B+]