One part inspiration to two parts exasperation, Andrew T. Betzer’s debut feature, “Young Bodies Heal Quickly,” is an initially arresting road trip for some off-the-wall characters that takes its sweet time going nowhere in particular. Sans any real narrative arc or deeper insight into the anarchic surface behaviors, the pic will ultimately wear out the patience of many viewers, though it’s also picked up admirers on the fest circuit so far. Its theatrical release clicks into slightly higher gear with a Feb. 27 opening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, simultaneous to its launch on streaming sites Fandor and Vimeo; it will become available on additional digital platforms in April.
Apparently escaping from some kind of institutional lockup — one among many basic plot points clearer in the film’s background materials than in the onscreen depiction — the young man designated only as Older (Gabriel Croft) makes a beeline for his presumed small-town home. There, he makes ape noises from the surrounding shrubbery to alert preteen Younger (Hale Lytle).
Armed with baseball bats and BB guns, it doesn’t take them long to get into trouble. First they smash up a car; then they terrorize some livestock. When they decide to bedevil some young women frolicking on dune buggies, the resulting fight leaves one participant seemingly dead — which is enough to make even our heedless protags realize they’ve gone too far. They hide out from police in the local countryside, come crawling home to Mom (Sandra L. Hale) once the coast is temporarily clear; she then packs them off in a borrowed auto.
Their first destination is the house of an older sis (Kate Lyn Sheil), whose welcome goes from wary to enraged in record time, as Older can’t resist goading her. She throws both out, although not before telling Younger “He’s horrible. They all are. Please stay as far away from him as you possibly can” — advice that goes immediately ignored. Their next stop is a coastal resort burg where they’re taken in by a French hotel housekeeper (Julie Sokolowski), though it turns out she’s just using them as another tool to stir erotic jealousy in her crazy hotel-chef b.f. (Alexandre Marouani).
Older’s maniacal driving soon gets their vehicle stuck in a ditch, although this lands them close enough to a wealthy family’s unoccupied vacation home where — again, according to the pic’s credits and production notes, rather than any intel the narrative offers — the lads’ much older father (Daniel P. Jones) happens to be employed as resident groundskeeper. They’re absorbed into his peculiar hermit lifestyle, which includes selling Nazi memorabilia online and is broken by an annual pilgrimage to a Vietnam War re-enactment in which our protags are now cast as Viet Cong. This latter plan is sure to go wrong, although exactly what does transpire is a bit murky, ending the pic on a predictably inconclusive note.
The impulsive, often childish and antisocial behaviors that lent Betzer’s prior shorts (including “John Wayne Hated Horses” and “Small Apartment”) an intriguing unpredictability is fully present here. But their energy is too sporadic to sustain a feature 10 times as long. Likewise, the spectacle of men and boys behaving badly proves insufficient as a primary storytelling glue, as we wait in vain for some psychological insight and/or family backgrounding that would render protags’ flailings meaningful rather than just colorful.
There’s a superficial similarity here to the cinema of Harmony Korine and other specialists in outsider grotesquerie. But the fact that Betzer’s characters inhabit a more recognizably real world (however poorly they fit into it) only makes the film’s resistance to explication and resolution ultimately seem more limiting than liberating. Each time a narrative stretch ends with an abrupt, awkward blackout, it feels like “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” has simply run out of ideas.
Nonetheless, the performers are admirably committed, and the major behind-the-scenes contributors (most notably Sean Price Williams’ Super 16 lensing) resourcefully heighten a mood of restive spontaneity.