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‘Never Goin’ Back’ Review: A24’s Wacky Stoner Comedy Is Like a Socially Realistic ‘Harold & Kumar’

Augustine Frizzell's lively debut overcomes some uneven gags by couching its silliness in a credible milieu of American malaise.

"Never Goin' Back"

“Never Goin’ Back”

A24/Screenshot

Two young women are looking to escape a dull Texas town. That’s the essence of “Never Goin’ Back,” the zany stoner comedy that marks the directorial debut of Augustine Frizzell, and it’s such a plausible goal that it sustains the movie through many tired tropes.

In between outrageous scatalogical gags and a mixed bag of insult throwdowns, best friends and roommates Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone) wander a landscape of greasy-spoon diners and convenience stores populating a gray landscape. As they hustle to maintain their waitressing jobs while plotting to skip rent for a trip to Galveston, the absurd gamble remains tethered to a very real place. If only they didn’t waste so much time getting high.

In the pantheon of the genre’s greatest hits, the A24-released “Never Goin’ Back” is pitched somewhere between a socially realistic “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and a naturalistic “Smiley Face.” Frizzell knows the genre, but also demonstrates a canny filmmaking sensibility that rises above the formula. Despite some clunkier bits in its first half, and hit-or-miss vignettes, the movie has a keen sense for its characters’ capacity to overcome the limitations of their surroundings with unbridled energy. From the moment Angela wakes up Jessie to reveal she’s drawn a penis on her face, their bond crystallizes: These raunchy high school dropouts survive their drab circumstances by playing catch with their frustrations.

But once the prank has been established, Angela presents her real reason for interrupting Jessie’s slumber: She’s blown their rent on a trip to the beach; now, they just have to figure out how to wiggle away from their overly sympathetic boss. Well, then there’s the problem with Jessie’s brother Dustin (Joel Allen), who happens to be their roommate, and seems to have blown his share of the rent on drug money for an ill-conceived dealing operation, and their fourth roommate Brandon (Kyle Mooney), a horny geek completely unaware that he’s the only person capable of paying for a place to live.

So begins a discursive odyssey that finds the women doing jail time, accidentally eating pot cookies, and casually plotting a heist so ludicrous that their enthusiasm for it becomes infectious. It’s unclear if their misplaced ambition speaks to an underlying stupidity or keen intelligence in search of better outlets. That’s part of the appeal of Frizzell’s script, which pulsates with the boisterous cynicism and confident attitude that the women share throughout, carrying the story through its less-satisfying first half through the sheer power of a realistic bond.

Shot with a crisp visual style loaded with inspired pop music, “Never Goin’ Back” has all the polish of its studio-produced equivalents, but more believable angst than a dozen Seth Rogen joints.  That’s largely due to the inspired performances of its two leads, both relative newcomers who seem likely to continue tackling such unruly material.

They’re complemented by the utter inanity of Allen, who plays Jessie’s sibling like a wannabe gangster raised on Eminem and “Beavis and Butt-Head” reruns. As Brandon, Mooney comes closest to giving the movie a gentler alternative, but the smiling fast-food clerk with wide eyes and a Jewfro still harbors daydreams about a threesome with his roommates, so really, he’s about as bad anyone else. Nothing’s sugarcoated here: Men are pigs, money is elusive, and life is such a bore. No wonder Angela and Jessie need to get away.

Of course it’s refreshing to watch a stoner comedy in which women take charge (they certainly have more motivational spirit than Anna Faris’ wandering space cadet in “Smiley Face”) albeit with the same recurring absurdity as anyone else who has stumbled through the lowbrow genre. Yet “Never Goin’ Back” doesn’t overplay the gender dynamics of its scenario; above all else, it’s a buddy movie.

While Angela constantly tries to talk Jessie into another deranged gamble, Jessie reminds her cohort that these schemes don’t always go so well. (As she recalls in a disturbing flashback, that time they hit each other with bricks to fake a car accident and get out of work didn’t exactly work out in their favor.) But Angela retains such fierce commitment to trying anything that she never fails to get her friend pumped up. Mitchell gives a mesmerizing performance, with reactions ranging from bafflement to anger and utter elation at the prospects of another plan to cheat the system.

Her experience provides a template for the movie’s intentions: Frizzell establishes a rambunctious atmosphere of discontent and wanders through a series of twists that sometimes stumble on poor delivery or half-formed conceits. But she comes back scene after scene with another inspired development, bludgeoning viewers into submitting to the movie’s distinctive spell. Less moment-to-moment funny than committed to a sustained pitch of devilish glee, “Never Goin’ Back” couches its silliness in a credible milieu of American malaise. The women may never understand how they might find a better place, but the movie makes the case that their unending commitment to getting there might be good enough.

Grade: B

“Never Goin’ Back” opens in limited release on Friday, August 3.

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