Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims have done the seemingly impossible. They have made it cool for adults to think that it would be cool to be a kid again while acknowledging just how much it really sucks to be a kid. In the painstakingly detailed and never blatantly obvious or pandering documentary Only the Young – handily one of the best films from last year’s Hot Docs festival that’s now getting a tiny 2013 release in Toronto – Tippet and Mims presents the audience with a trio of teenage friends from California that people might not fully identify with, but that they can know and understand. More than just a bland treatise on growing up, it’s a tightly packed character study of people that deserve happiness.
I say people because calling their Christian punk rock skateboarder trio teenagers does them a disservice. The problems that Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway, and Skye Elmore face are ultimately the kinds of things that will either define or inform who they are later in life. Over the course of a year that will possibly end with the trio of BFFs never seeing each other again, two of them will experience the kinds of setbacks and wounds that only time will heal (even if the characters are too cool to admit it to themselves), and the other will act somewhat shell shocked and come across as sometimes being aloof and oblivious to the point of not caring.
That’s not because the goody-two-shoes, straight-edged, Jesus loving Garrison doesn’t care, but because of the three he’s been raised with the most privilege. His journey is the one of learning how to cope when your friends are going through hard times and you feel powerless to step in and help. It’s a subtle and powerful throughline that Tippet and Mims use as the backbone of their film. As Garrison begins to learn that his behaviour – which is never bad or transgressive outside of taking over an abandoned house as his own personal stomping ground for performing dangerous stunts with his buds – has consequences for those around him.
There’s never any way Garrison could know what his closest confidants are feeling. He’s had an on again off again “thing” (I hesitate to say relationship) with Skye for ages, and he doesn’t think that his cavalier attitude towards just suddenly dating another girl would cause a rift in their closeness. Add to that the fact that Skye lives with her soon to be evicted grandparents because her father has been in prison, and her stress becomes hard to take at any age.
As the wild card of the bunch, Kevin could be a great skateboarder and the member of the group most likely to have a career right out of high school, but his focus seems drained in every aspect of his life. He’s almost a bit of an ADHD puppy dog. He’s also sweet on Skye and he openly disapproves and mocks how badly Garrison treats her, but he’s also a depressed individual in other aspects of his life.
Mims and Tippet, themselves not too far removed from their teens, have crafted a gorgeous and sensitive look at three kids that probably aren’t seen as being the most popular or normal kinds of sterotypes to those around them. It avoids cliché by only showing the trio within their own deeply personal bubbles and tuning out the white noise around them. The only time adults are really brought into the equation are the few times when their actions directly and mostly adversely impact on their lives. It’s one of the few films to ever feel as exhilarating, agonizing, and awkward as teenage life truly is, and it does so without ever once resorting to cheap theatrics or pigeonholing the subjects. Despite a considerable amount of style in the cinematography department and a banging soundtrack of old school soul tracks, Only the Young is as raw and refreshing as such a film could ever hope to be.