Of the past decade’s many fine films on skateboarders and international skateboarding culture, ranging from Larry Clark’s “Wassup Rockers” and Stacy Peralta’s “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” to Tristan Patterson’s “Dragonslayer” and Serb helmer Nikola Lezaic’s “Tilva Ros,” “Only the Young” stands out as the most human and affecting. An unqualified hit in its True/False preem, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ feature debut will rouse fans during a strong fest run.
Although the new generation of skateboard docs has struggled in the marketplace, “Only the Young” could conceivably buck the trend, due to the filmmakers’ warm feelings toward their likable and interesting teen characters, who feel less like documentary subjects than like figures J.D. Salinger might have crafted in a genial mood. The pleasurable visuals and unconventional soundtrack help, too.
The pic continues a little-noted trend of live-action filmmakers emerging from Los Angeles County-based CalArts, best known for its prowess in animation and experimental film, and staying close to home to make striking features. Tippet and Mims join fellow alums Lee Anne Schmitt (“California Company Town,” “The Last Buffalo Hunt”), David Fenster (“Trona”) and Mike Ott (“Littlerock”) in making a memorable contribution to what might be termed the SoCal indie film.
“Only the Young” is lensed in the northern L.A. suburb of Canyon Country, following close skateboarding buddies Garrison Saenz and Kevin Conway, as well as Saenz’s on-and-off g.f., Skye Elmore, over a key period during their teen years. One’s initial impression of these subjects is in line with the usual slacker-punk stereotypes, as the guys seem to bum around, spending their copious free time squatting in an abandoned house where they plan skating and music bashes.
That perception is quickly undermined by the guys’ friendly, genuinely innocent manner as captured by Tippet and Mims’ camera, which simply takes in what they do and say in the moment; the p.o.v. seems to be that of a friend simply hanging out with them, allowing for unfettered access and a gratifyingly direct, non-judgmental perspective.
This also allows the film to plunge into Saenz’s and Conway’s complex and seemingly contradictory stories. Conway has no gal in his life at the moment, but unlike the shyer, more circumspect Saenz, he’s kissed Elmore, which causes a momentary rift between the buddies. Elmore, who proves considerably thoughtful and perceptive about human relations, adores Saenz, but the two are unwilling or unable to begin a full-on relationship.
As a result, at least for a while, Saenz hooks up with rebel girl Kristen Cheriegate, a hip-hop enthusiast and dancer, while Elmore has new b.f., Robin Levy, whom she describes with typical frankness as “so sensitive and dumb,” and then embarrassedly stops herself: “Well, not dumb … ” Further countering stereotypes, Saenz, Conway and Elmore are devout Christians and yet never really proselytize, apart from an outreach event with Skaters for Christ; at the same time, Saenz feels so much (offscreen) heat from his congregation over dating nonbeliever Cherigate that they break up.
Among other things, “Only the Young” reps an important document of life in today’s downscaling America: The once-thriving Canyon Country has visibly gone to recession-era seed, and Elmore’s family faces homelessness during the course of events. Hers and other subjects’ fates remain darkly uncertain at the film’s end.
Freshness is the underlying sensibility guiding aesthetic choices in cinematography, editing and sound. The helmers find consistently invigorating camera angles and a smooth editing scheme, despite what was surely a raft of footage. Vintage and rare R&B tunes go completely against the grain of the material, yet feel exactly right.