"Only The Young" -- available on DVD today, as well as on most on-demand and digital platforms -- is a deceptively slight, visually eloquent documentary that affectionately chronicles three suburban Santa Clarita, Calif., teenagers adrift in a recessionary landscape of abandoned miniature-golf courses, isolated desert shacks and crowded skateparks.
Though the subject and setting may sound bleak, the cinematic tone is anything but.
On the contrary, while never intruding in the frame, its directors -- recent CalArts graduates Elizabeth Mims, 24, and Jason Tippet, 26 -- project a palpable fondness for their antiheroic, refreshingly sweet protagonists Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway and Skye Elmore.
Whether it's anonymous hillside subdivisions or, yes, perfect-for-skateboarding drainage ditches, the directors have an uncommonly good feel for teenage haunts -- the emotional, psychological and spiritual spaces adolescents inhabit. (Tippet is a Santa Clarita, Calif., native.) These are filmmakers who clearly have absorbed lessons from photography's modern masters, like William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Bill Owens, but who are also probably familiar with leading skateboarding subculture documentarians such as Thrasher magazine's Michael Burnett, who often records the very same terrain with a similar, guardedly optimistic sensibility.
Throughout "Only The Young," the directors are at pains to justify this sunniness.
To that end, the young directors deliberately eschew the kind of salacious interpersonal conflict that reality television traffics in. Yes, we wonder if Skye is more than just a friend to Garrison, or if her dalliance with Conway was something more. At one point Conway competes in a skateboard contest in Arizona. An absent parent struggles with heroin addiction. But instead of forcing all this stuff into some manufactured plotline, Tippet and Mims wisely turn their attention to the texture of their subjects' lives -- quietly listening in on their sometimes-profound banter.
"It's still not okay to do personal things impersonally," says Skye when her estranged mother attempts to "friend" her on Facebook.
Despite its becoming brevity, the 70-minute film benefits from an unhurried pace that gives ample time for poetic observation. The camera lingers on details like little colored flags fluttering over a fence as night falls on a skateboard contest; a lone firework shooting into the air above an anonymous subdivision; a skater carving back and forth in a concrete pipe.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Kevin and Garrison are extraordinarily endearing or that Skye's emotional precocity draws you in.
These are precisely the kind of teenagers artist/pro skater Ed Templeton might photograph -- the ones on the sidelines of skate contests, watching the action, yet in their own little world -- and at many times the film feels like one of his photographs come to life: every inch of the frame filled with feeling, lush color and a prodigious amount of quirky detail. (A montage of Garrison and Conway in matching Gandalf costumes is particularly priceless.)
"Only The Young" received positive attention when it ran in select theatres. (Michael Cera, the patron saint of awkward adolescence, showed up at one screening.) But the film -- a credible answer to all those who believe the kids are not alright/Western Civilization is in decline -- deserves wider recognition. Anyone who appreciates the photography of the aforementioned Templeton, or pro skater/photographer Jerry Hsu, would do well to pick up a copy of "Only The Young."