One of the great things about nerding out at a film festival is the possibility that you will stumble upon an amazing movie that you wouldn’t have otherwise gone out of your way to see. You end up going to see things just because someone wearing a plastic pass around their neck tells you DO NOT miss this movie. At Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Festival last spring, everyone was talking about Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s first feature, Only the Young, so I got myself to a morning screening in the makeshift theater set up in the gym annex of a downtown church.
True/False prides itself on picking documentaries that defy easy summary, and this film is no exception. It would really sell it short to describe it as an intimate peek into the lives of three kids coming of age in the sleepy, economically depressed exurbia of Santa Clarita, California. A meandering meditation on adolescent aimlessness, friendship, love, skateboarding, and faith, Only the Young doesn’t dwell on the economic or religious context of its characters, focusing instead on representing some transcendent truths of teenage experience. Lanky, lovable goofs Garrison and Kevin love Crass, skateboarding, changing their haircut and color, and Jesus. Their bond is complicated when Garrison starts a flirtation with Skye, a sad-eyed, whip-smart girl who sees right through the boys’ bravado, even as she yearns for their love and acceptance. The three of them spend their time exploring the forgotten spaces of their town, turning the housing bubble’s cliché symbols of blight and decay—abandoned swimming pools, unfinished mini-golf courses built to divert happy hordes that never came, dilapidated shacks nestled into the golden hills—into skate jumps, romantic vistas, secret club houses. Their idyllic adventures are captured in magical slow-motion sequences and soundtracked by the lush sounds of 1970s soul music, though the sweetness of the tone and images is counterbalanced with plenty of humor. “Children are the gods of this city,” Garrison declares, “And there’s still nothing to do,” Kevin snarks.
What’s most fascinating about the film is how it invokes the archetypes of teen angst while resisting cliché. It probes without exploiting. These kids are in church youth groups, yet they shred super hard. They don’t really drink or smoke or do typical “bad kid” stuff, but they have piercings and mohawks and dabble in self harm (Kevin admits to cutting himself). They dream of the world beyond their town yet none of them really knows what that would mean. They yearn for romance but seem fulfilled by friendship. By reveling in the specific, Only the Young reveals things that might be universal.
After Only the Young made a splash at True/False, it was picked up by Oscilloscope Pictures (the film distribution company founded by Ad Rock) and played at SilverDocs, where it won Best US Feature, and at AFI Fest, where it won the Audience Award for Young Americans. On the day their movie was premiering in New York, I talked to them about capturing teenage authenticity on film, oversharing, reality TV, the landscapes of suburban decay, and skate church.
VICE: I read that you met Kevin and Garrison by chance?
Jason: Yeah, we met them in a parking lot. Garrison had a metal detector out and found someone’s keys to a Jaguar and they asked us if they were ours. [They were not.] Then at some point Kevin just wandered up, and they started arguing with each other about where they wanted to go to lunch. They kind of reminded us of Beavis and Butt-Head. Then they started telling us about an abandoned house. We didn’t think we’d make it a feature at first. It was going to start out as a short about them and this abandoned house. Then it kind of grew once we met Skye and we saw what she was going through, and that we could capture a relationship unfolding in the moment. I think that’s when we realized we kind of have a bigger story then just a short film.
But you had an idea to make a film about the exurbs of Southern California right?
Elizabeth: We knew we wanted to make a film about this place because this is near where Jason grew up. We were seeing all of these kind of sensationalized MTV-like stories about kids with anorexia… problems we couldn’t really relate to. So we decided that it would be great if we could make something that showed what we experienced as kids.
Jason: I didn’t realize how special the Santa Clarita Valley was until I got to college. Then I realized it is kind of a strange place.
Why is it special and strange?
Jason: It’s a place that no one really gets out of. People just end up working for their parents. They just have big plans and then they just hang out, get stuck and complacent. There’s not a lot to do there so people end up blowing things up in the desert or riding dirt bikes or mopeds around town. When I was growing up it was kind of this place with no consequences. You could kind of just explore.
The movie feels so light at parts, in the best possible way—kind of ecstatic. But then there’s also this kind of darkness underneath that is touched on only in rare moments, and mostly through Skye’s experiences. It seems like the place lines up with that dichotomy as well. There’s a sunny/suburban feeling but then there’s the shadow of mass foreclosures, the wildness of the natural world encroaching on the built community, the cemented-in rivers that are degraded but still beautiful. Was that something that you were thinking about consciously?
Jason: That’s a good question. I think because of the lack of things to do there are a lot of these places—like the mini-golf course for instance—that they end up using for other purposes than what they are intended to be used for. Every time we would go out with the kids they would take us to a new spot they found. It was like they were always trying to find new places.
Elizabeth: I think the landscape does have these kinds of darker aspects. The places these kids would hang out were these kind of constructed, man-made ruins. But they would bring lightness it. In terms of us controlling that or thinking about that, I don’t know if we were very much able to do that. Once we got into the editing room it was something that we kind of realized—they were taking us to all of these places that were dilapidated and they were bringing a different type of life to it.
What about their Christianity? Kevin and Garrison wear punk T-shirts, and skate all the time, but they don’t reject what many skaters and punks have typically disliked: religion.
Jason: Yeah, there’s this thing called Skate Church. They would let them skate around and they built half-pipes on church grounds and they would lock them up and not let them use it unless they would come to Skate Church. After 30 minutes of skating they would bring them all inside to pray. We went one day but they wouldn’t let us film.
For the most part the church is a positive force in their lives. But sometimes it gets a little troublesome. When Garrison and his girlfriend after Skye, Kristen, break up, they’re talking about how it’s because the church wanted them to, and then Skye says, “Oh, that’s how the church rolls.” Did you feel like this was a moment when their relationship to the church changed?
Elizabeth: I think there’s a moment when Garrison comes to a realization. Before, he’d said, “Why do they have to be all up in our business and all of this?” That would have never been something he would have talked about before. But then he says to Kristen, “Oh, these people are wiser than us so they know better.”
But I almost didn’t know how to read that. Do you think he believed what he was saying? Do you think he was saying that in order to not face his doubts?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I think that’s him justifying it to himself because it isn’t something that he had to deal with yet, and this is really the first time that he is going against what he’s grown up with. I think that that moment he’s just really trying to rationalize it for himself. It’s something he wanted so badly. We could tell he did really like Kristen.
Do you think that there is any relationship between their attraction to the church and the geography of the place, which is a place that’s filled with like these huge symbols of past mistakes, the ruins of the burst housing bubble?
Jason: That’s when people turn to religion, when something’s going wrong. It’s this moment of weakness when you want an answer. Or you’re looking for comfort, I guess.
The kids are making the best of it by just skateboarding through it, making the ruins into a playground, which is actually a really beautiful image from your movie.
Jason: We wanted to touch on religion but it’s not necessarily a religious film or a skateboarding film. With teenagers or kids you always peg them as this negative thing, like when Kevin is cutting himself—it could easily turn into that kind of film. It could have turned into a skateboarding film or a religious film but all these things together make them well-rounded people.
Elizabeth: That’s how we know them. They aren’t only one way so it would be so wrong to depict them that way.