At 7:30PM tonight, 2/25, Only the Young (T/F 2012) returns to Ragtag nearly a year after its first screening at True/False. Fresh off an appearance at the Independent Spirit Awards, where the film was nominated for the Truer Than Fiction award, co-director Jason Tippet will be on hand to answer questions. To buy advance tickets, visit ragtagfilm.com.
When Only the Young introduces us to best friends Kevin and Garrison, they’re breaking into an abandoned house and transforming it into a hangout for skateboarders. “Children are the gods of this city,” Garrison says. “Who’s gonna stop us?” Kevin asks. The friends shrug off legalities, and so does the film. Their hometown of Santa Clarita, California appears to be littered with abandoned property, a product of the recession, which figures prominently as subtext in this delightfully un-didactic film.
The initial premise recalls Jonathan Kaplan’s coming-of-age classic Over the Edge—another film about kids creating a sanctuary in a California boomburb. But Minor Threat t-shirts aside, Kevin and Garrison are far too sweet to raise any sort of hell. They spend a lot of time with their Christian youth group, and if they harbor any ill feelings toward their parents and teachers, we wouldn’t know: filmmakers Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims present a world mostly devoid of authority figures.
Over the course of Only the Young, we also meet Skye, Garrison’s on-and-off love interest who is equally wholesome and twice as wise. At the outset, Skye’s father is in prison and her mother is out of the picture. Instead, she lives with her grandparents, who are about to lose their home. Skye spouts witticisms throughout the film and comes off as remarkably mature and perceptive.
Only the Young could coast on its subjects’ ineffable charm, but the reason this film will go down as one of the most exciting documentary debuts of the past decade is the ingenuity displayed by Tippet and Mims behind the camera and in the editing room.
Although the narrative is almost entirely relayed in interviews, it is easy to mistake Only the Young for pure observational storytelling. In part, that confusion can be attributed to the film’s refined visual aesthetic: each frame is carefully composed (not a handheld shot in sight), and the filmmakers employ the gorgeous, ruinous landscape in meaningful ways. But it’s just as much a testament to Tippet and Mims’ interview technique.
Although we’re never quite sure what that technique is—this film isn’t interested in revealing its process—it seems to involve setting up a shot, directing an open-ended question (which we never hear) at two subjects and then letting their answers develop into a natural conversation. Consequently, the film’s narrative unfolds not through a cycle of questions and answers, but as a series of intimate exchanges. At times it’s as if we’re watching these hyper-articulate teenagers perform in a carefully scripted play, or, as film critic Eric Hynes wrote in The New York Times, “a live-action ‘Peanuts’ cartoon.”
Although Tippet and Mims’ filmmaking derives its spellbinding power from the act of watching subjects lost in conversation, it also yields fascinating results when self-consciousness creeps into the frame. Early in the film, Garrison expresses worry when he notices Kevin cutting himself. Embarrassed, Kevin looks at Skye—out of frame—and says, “This is more awkward than after I kissed you.” When Skye tells him she’s upset that he revealed that on camera, Kevin quickly apologizes. “No, you’re not,” responds Skype, “You did that on purpose.” The camera has instigated a rift that lasts for days.
Tippet and Mims streamline all this compelling footage into a brisk pop narrative that never feels rushed or talky. Over the course of 72 minutes, we watch relationships form, crumble, and reform. We watch subjects deal with economic woes and family crises. And yet, despite all these misfortunes, and despite the dilapidated environment in which the film is set, a sense of freedom and joy pervades Only the Young.
In addition to all the wisecracks made by its three stars, the film is full of glorious shots of Kevin and Garrison catching air, set not to the angst-ridden punk bands whose patches they wear on their jackets but to exuberant soul tunes.
Only the Young’s photography also highlights the fascinating juxtaposition that defines Santa Clarita: all its abandoned houses and mini golf courses rest on breathtaking pretty hills lit by an endless supply of sunshine (the film is almost entirely set in the daytime).
The life force of Only the Young is optimism, whether it’s Kevin and Garrison turning this crumbling landscape into their playground or Skye deflecting home troubles with a wry sense of humor. Tippet and Mims’ distinct, assured debut serves as a testament to both the act of turning lemons into lemonade and simply keeping your shit together.