Savage Youth is
like someone distilled the joyful, open road youth of American Honey, with the caustic neon drenched vibrancy of Spring Breakers, and dashed in an
unhealthy dash of misguided whiteness of Never
Goin’ Back, and then smashed it all together to create one of the most
brutal takedowns of white America in recent years. Writer/Director Michael
Curtis Johnson pulls from real life to tell the disturbing narrative of six
despondent youths who are all in their own ways directionless.
Opening with wannabe Insane Clown Posse-make up adorned
Jason (Will Brittain) spewing a rap about life, we’re gradually introduced to
the troupe of teens whose lives we’ll see unfurl in chaotic, brutal ways. Elena
(Grace Victoria Cox) is a wannabe artist who is frequently reminded that her
drawings could ‘make her money’, but it’s easier for her to live a life relying
on her father’s shit business money (as we’re reminded, he sells manure). Her
friend, Stephanie (Chloë Levine), reads off lines from Romeo & Juliet as an
ode to the origins of love, only to use her risqué topless selfies as a way of
courting her date, Hyde (J. Michael Trautmann). Jason and Hyde’s trio of
sub-amateur rappers is completed with their dim, but earnest, friend Lucas
(Sasha Feldman). Elsewhere, Gabe (Tequan Richmond) and Mike (Mitchell Edwards)
realise their failure at high school has left them little choice but to turn to
peddling weed as a way of making money. Across the next 100 minutes, these
youths all intertwine with one another, each making mistakes and the world pushes
back against them for those mistakes.
Where Andrea Arnold’s American
Honey presented a world of youths who were devoid of purpose, travelling
the country in search of purpose, with their crimes and misdemeanours almost
coming across as inspirational actions, Savage
Youth is less lenient on the youth of America. It’s clear from the get go
that this group of teens have had opportunities afforded to them – namely, an
education – but their lack of applying themselves to further their own future
and simply expecting that their ‘talent’ is what will make them a living just
underlines how deep their lack of awareness about the demands of life is.
Miraculously, Johnson doesn’t ever pull the ‘kids just don’t know how lucky
they have it’ card, instead painting each character as fully realised beings,
and giving each actor the necessary material to bring these characters to life.
Each performance is pitch perfect, with the film centring on
Grace Victoria Cox’s Elena. There’s an eerie likeliness to Evan Rachel Wood,
with echoes of Wood’s career creating performance in Thirteen carrying across here. Cox is mesmerising to watch, with
her uncanny ability to portray teen love with all its facets – the kind of love
that, at that age, your life depends on. In an inspired move, Elena begins the
film with electric, vibrant purple hair, and as her life gradually spirals out
of control, the dye fades, leaving her with an unkempt, washed out look, her
roots all exposed, leaving her true self open to the world.
Will Brittain’s performance as Jason is purely terrifying.
His physicality and outward look is militaristic, with a set of dog tags never
leaving his neck, and a crew cut hairstyle that feels straight out of Full Metal Jacket. Everybody has done
him wrong in some way, and while he talks about how nobody ever gives him a
chance, it’s clear that he’s not even giving himself a chance. Jason is a
character who gladly takes from the world, with his rapping style clearly being
cribbed from black culture, and as the film progresses, it’s painfully clear
that there is nothing that Jason won’t do to succeed.
subtly explores the differences between white youth and black youth growing up.
When Jason is arrested for breaking into a house, instead of jail time, he’s
given the task of writing two essays on films. When Mike is arrested for having
an unlicensed gun, he’s given jail time and has a record. His life is ruined.
White privilege appears all over Savage
Youth, with Johnson ensuring to show how toxic the entitlement of the young
white man is when it comes to relationships and ownership of culture. Lucas
continually bemoans the fact that no girl is interested in him, but does little
to actually endear himself to anyone, living in the misguided view that if he
keeps rapping, then surely someone will want him. These white characters don’t
fail upwards, but instead, just meander through life being useless vessels for mediocrity.
They hang out in drains, drink cheap liquor and smoke crack, and wonder why
they’re not moving forward in life.
For Gabe, his weed peddling is a dollar making venture,
albeit an illegal one. We’re never sure of how much he applied himself at
school, but when his closest friend leaves for college and he’s left behind, he
applies what he’s learnt to drugs. As business goes well, he laments that if he
were in Colorado, he’d be making bank. But, instead of putting some of those
hard earned illegal dollars into making himself a path to get to Colorado, he
sticks around and continues to try to make it work in a dead end world.
There’s a lot going on in Savage Youth, and while there is a wealth of negativity being
explored, it’s a testament to the direction and actors that these characters
are never not engaging. They’re endearing in a toxic way – you can’t help but
watch them make mistakes, and yet, outside of Gabe and Mike, you’re never
actually wanting these characters to succeed. This may make it sound like they’re
unlikeable, or repugnant, but oddly, they’re not. They’re just broken people
with no willpower of ever actually building themselves up to be more than what
they already are.
Everybody involved with this film is someone to keep an eye
on. Savage Youth may not be a
pleasant experience as it rolls around to the end, but it’s one that will
linger for a long while. As the harsh reminder that this is based on a true
story rolls across the screen at the end, you are left shaken by the depths of
arrogance and wilful harm that white men will push onto others. This is a fascinating,
brilliantly crafted, and timely film, don’t miss this one.
Victoria Cox, Tequan Richmond, Will Brittain
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