There’s a point when a movie starts dropping too many references to other movies that the enthusiasm gets a little suspicious. In director Thembi L. Banks’ debut feature “Young. Wild. Free.”— the title styled as such for no reason in particular — a mysterious woman with “Euphoria” eye-makeup named Cassidy (Sierra Capri) suddenly starts spouting them with abandon about 30 minutes in. “Did you know this is the diner from ‘Reservoir Dogs?,'” she says while digging into some pancakes at the diner from “Reservoir Dogs.” Over the course of the rest of the film’s running time, she proceeds to name drop “Dazed and Confused,” “Unforgiven,” and “Kill Bill.” Something is up.
And something is indeed up in the drama, which is stylish and frequently well-acted, but goes off the rails as its big twist starts to become more and more obvious. As the Letterboxd-friendly dialogue would imply: This is one you’ve seen before, and it’s sloppily executed.
By the time the reveal comes around you’ve been anticipating it for at least an hour if not more, and its consequences are left mostly unexplored. The early promise of the visuals and performances are squandered with empty shock value. Thus “Young. Wild. Free.” necessitates one of those reviews where you are forced to talk around the elephant in the (screening) room in order to avoid the spoilers — which would inevitably make readers say, “aw, c’mon,” should they be revealed.
With that in mind, know that the film centers on a high school senior in South Central named Brandon (Algee Smith of “Detroit” and, yes, “Euphoria”). Brandon is a talented artist with little direction, and too many concerns at home. His mother, Janice (Sanaa Lathan, in a standout performance), wrestles with depression, leaving Brandon in charge of caring for his two younger half-siblings. Janice has neglected to pay the property taxes on their home, leaving Brandon worrying about the future.
One evening he heads to the local convenience store to grab a snack and steal some ramen noodles for his family’s empty kitchen, when in walks an entrancing young woman in a rhinestone ski mask and pink fur jacket who makes a mess before she sticks up the place. (“You’ve seen ‘Menace II Society,’ right?”) On the way out, she kisses a bewildered Brandon. Soon, she’s at his house introducing herself as Cassidy and filling his fridge with food.
Brandon quickly falls under the spell of this manic pixie creature, who loves cinema and drives a red BMW convertible that she beats up with a golf club for laughs. His skepticism of her eventually blooms into a full on romance where they cut school to watch Lena Horne movies and gaze upon the Hollywood sign while he sketches.
In these early moments, Capri, best known for her work on the Netflix series “On My Block,” dives into her thinly written role with all the charisma she can muster. Her copious charm makes the fact that Cassidy is clearly a Quentin Tarantino-quoting male fantasy palatable at least until the holes in her story start to become so gaping they are hard to ignore. Smith also does a solid job balancing the mess of tones in the screenplay by Banks and Juel Taylor, the latter of whom conceived the story alongside Tony Rettenmaier. (Taylor and Rettenmaier previously collaborated on the screenplay for “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which, unfortunately, is not a great sign.) As Janice, meanwhile, Lathan is at the top of her game: Warm and weary; funny and occasionally bitingly cruel. One just wishes she were in a stronger movie that warranted this performance from the long great actress.
Which isn’t to say that “Young. Wild. Free.” is entirely devoid of cinematic value. Banks employs some tricks to unsettle her viewers and make them question Brandon’s state of mind, like frequent, choppy cuts to a ceiling fan above his bed. And, along with cinematographer Cary Lalonde, she milks the Los Angeles landscape for all its romanticism with attractive shots of everything from laundromats to bleak, dark roads.
But none of that is enough to override the mess that is the climax where the plot mechanisms collapse any goodwill that Banks and her team have built up. As Cassidy swerves from fun wild child into dangerous siren, Capri struggles to maintain her hold on the elusive character, resorting to yelling over nuance. Smith’s grasp on Brandon also falters as the character’s world spins out of control and he’s consumed by melodrama.
There’s an attempt by Banks and Taylor to make some points about therapy and mental health as “Young. Wild. Free.” draws to a close, but the good intentions are lost in the utter silliness of the twist. It’s a surprise that’s so familiar it almost seems retro — think: ’90s blockbuster — and it’s employed in such a way that burdens the movie with questions it’s incapable of answering. Instead, you’re just left reeling from the derivative inanity of it all. Trust me, you’ve heard this one before.
“Young. Wild. Free.” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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