Filmmaker Josh Koury’s senior thesis project at the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, “Standing by Yourself” is an unadorned, verite glimpse into the lives of two directionless teens in a well-appointed upstate New York suburb.
Pic follows its subjects with a remarkable degree of non-interference (particularly considering that one is the director’s younger brother), never seeming calculated to shock but doing so nonetheless; it’s a Larry Clark research project with a grungy, home-movie aesthetic.
Koury taps into teen delinquency and hits a raw nerve, offering a keen profile of adolescent disillusionment. While pic retains a certain shapelessness in its current, hourlong incarnation, it shows promise for feature-length expansion.
Subjects Josh Siegfried and Adam Koury introduce themselves on camera, followed by a series of observational moments from a few days in their lives. As Josh pressures his mother for money to hang out with Adam, the director (who, in true verite style, frequently puts his camera directly into the hands of his subjects) captures the teen’s skillful manipulation of his single parent with fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude.
It’s when the teens are together that the film really takes off. Josh and Adam “act out,” staging rambunctious pranks, drinking cough syrup to get high. They’re true mallrats — middle-class suburban kids eager to raise hell — minus Kevin Smith’s prettifications. Viewers are given access to their private world here in a way that Hollywood films often try but rarely succeed at depicting.
Watching these kids, cultural perceptions about American male youth are alternately invoked and deconstructed: Yes, they’re gross and hopped-up and indelicate; they are the much sought-after audience for “American Pie” and “Jackass”; and they also spit with astonishing frequency. But they’re enormously fragile and scared, too, intimidated by the looming “adult world.” Koury, who isn’t too far from being a teen himself, gets this.
Koury, concerned that he captured only a superficial presentation of his subjects in the initial 20-minute intro, returns several months later to complete the project. At this point, Josh has almost entirely transformed his identity, from preppy to retro-punk (complete with Mohawk and tattered, band-insignia-strewn jacket). Koury takes us deeper inside his own family, too: a loving, but exasperated mother; a remarried father with a “new” family of his own; and an epileptic older brother. This is the section of the film that is most ripe for further exploration, although film does convey a sense of the enormous efforts that has to go into keeping a family together in this day and age.
Ultimately, “Standing by Yourself” is keyed into a kind of middle-class malaise, a festering boredom that can grow into anger at everyone and everything, particularly at what it might mean to wake up one day having turned into your parents. These two teenage boys, desperate to harness identities for themselves, amid a flood of raging hormones and the pressure to “become men” (whatever that means), are representatives of an entire generation. And in the post-Columbine era, Koury’s film has its finger on something particularly potent.