The Tribeca Film Festival’s guide refers to Andy Betzer’s “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” as an “American Primitivist” film. It’s certainly something like that, although the description doesn’t quite do justice to the alternately troubling and rousing experience of watching the picture. Shot in appropriately garish looking 16mm by Sean Williams, “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” follow the story of two brothers, known only as younger and older. It’s summer time and we meet them in a lush, green American nowhere. For the first ten minutes or so, it’s all youthful fun and games powered by garden variety vandalism.
Older, who wears a wrestler’s helmet everywhere he goes regardless of the occasion, uses a yoga mat, or something like it, to hop a chain link fence with a barbed wire top. The two proceed to smash the holy hell out of a mid-90s sedan. And then they find a pair of girls riding scooters and a fight ensues after Older fires at the girls with a BB gun. When a young blonde gets a baseball bat to the dome, her black friend flies — as do the boys, but without Older’s wrestling helmet.
So begins the single oddest film in the festival’s 2014 slate. The festival hasn’t programmed such a far-out narrative at least since 2011’s “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” We’ve all seen “young dudes on the lam” movies before, but certainly nothing like this. After being set loose by the Constable, who immediately pegs them as the perpetrators in a wordless scene in which he visits their home and displays the helmet to their mother, she preps them for a long journey and suddenly they’re off, driving through what could be anywhere in America, although the occasional road sign tells us they’re in California. What do they find on their odyssey? Other oddballs, of course. In the world of “Young Bodies Heal Quickly,” no other kind of American exists.
Eventually, the ubiquitous Kate Lyn Sheil shows up, with the porcelain-skinned actress inexplicably playing the country wife of a middle-aged black carpenter and the mother of his gaggle of children, none of whom look particularly like the product of such a mix. The boys stay with them, before she tires of them. Older has a way of not being terribly relatable while causing every situation they find themselves in to go up in flames. Eventually they end up getting involved with a very dangerous French couple, one of whom is a gifted chef who doesn’t shirk from a knife fight. At another point, a car chase ensues. The movie doesn’t contextualize any of this, nor does it outright suggest that the world has gone askew for any particular reason.
The director, whose magnificent 2008 short “Small Apartment” first brought him to the attention of the festival world before his next short, “John Wayne Hated Horses,” landed him in the Cannes lineup, infuses the film with a sardonic drollness that is peculiar but altogether refreshing. Yet there’s a troubling aspect behind it all: Do these children not deserve to face justice? What is the point of their odyssey? Are they capable of self-growth, of any sort of reflection on themselves or the world around them? That the movie gets you to actively ask these question while you’re watching it is an achievement in itself, but the work leaves you with the feeling of an unpolished provocation: shocked, more than a little impressed, but somewhat undernourished.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t chock-full of bravura moments, genuinely inspired performances and some of cinematographer Williams’ typically gauzy lensing. By the time the boys reach their ultimate destination, the compound of their father — a moribund southerner who obsesses with Vietnam re-enactments — the movie has sacrificed any sense that it’s building to an epiphanic conclusion. Yet the final sequence, in which we are foisted into an extremely disturbing battle scene that, although it’s fought and presented to the audience under the premise that it’s fake, has an especially realistic feel to it. The climax is shot and performed in a way to make you believe the bullets are as real as the deaths.
It goes a long way to complicating the harrowing scene of violence that began the film. Betzer seems to be suggesting, without doing anything that would commit him fully to any sort of fleshed out critique, that it’s dangerous to treat such ugly portrayals with moral relativism.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The movie has potential to become a sleeper hit on the festival circuit. Theatrical/VOD prospects are limited but a small distributor could help it realize some cult potential.