Remember what it was like to be young and in love? If you do, chances are your memories don’t much resemble “Kids in Love,” a tale of moneyed youth rebellion that is as reality-averse as the pretty young things it centers on, and at least as slender. Gaining what gawky charm it has almost entirely from leading man Will Poulter, this attractively mounted tale of a bright high-school graduate torn between his own bohemian impulses and his parents’ white-collar expectations poses a familiar enough dilemma. Yet between his family’s well-appointed West London home and a romantically disheveled commune in hyper-hip Hackney Wick, our protagonist faces so little hardship either way that it’s hard to identify with his low-stakes situation. Shot a couple of years ago, this recent Edinburgh premiere may benefit from the subsequently risen stars of Poulter and little-used supporting player Cara Delevingne, though it’ll remain a completists’ item on their respective filmographies.
Opening in U.K. theaters next month, this debut feature for director Chris Foggin — best known for his prize-winning, Judi Dench-starring 2011 short “Friend Request Pending” — will have slipped quietly down ancillary avenues by the time Andrea Arnold’s Cannes-awarded whirlwind “American Honey” rips into town. If Arnold’s study of rolling, reckless teen hedonism makes this one look about as adventurous as a Bacardi Breezer, that’s not necessarily a fair comparison. At its heart, “Kids in Love” is a fundamentally sunny celebration of irresponsible young adulthood, mostly unburdened by social malaise or critique; if nothing else, the improbably idyllic London summer against which the film is set makes it clear we’re in the realm of partial fantasy.
Still, while the film’s balmy good vibes are occasionally infectious, the narrowness of its worldview does begin to grate. Heavily populated with white, upper-middle-class millennials for whom unpaid internships and gap years in South America are standard rites of passage, the script (by twentysomething thesps Sebastian De Souza and Preston Thompson, who also take secondary roles) articulates individual characters’ ennui, but remains incurious about the world beyond the bubble that frustrates them so. Jack (Poulter) is being pushed into a law degree by his buttoned-up parents, but what he really wants to do — work as a photographer for glossy lifestyle magazine i-D — isn’t exactly a battle cry against the establishment. Perhaps a knowingly dry irony is at play here: How much leeway is there for true subversion in Britain’s deeply ingrained class system?
That said, Jack does want a job, which makes him something of an outlier in the glamorous, hazy-eyed new social set he falls into after falling head over heels for French boho émigré Evelyn (Alma Jodorowsky, granddaughter of cult Mexican auteur Alejandro). An aspiring artist too shy to show her work to others — just as well, since she doesn’t spend much time working at it — she lives in an elegantly decaying Victorian mansion with a gaggle of similarly louche, artsy, runway-ready pals. (Audiences in post-Brexit Britain may regard this cosmopolitan setup somewhat ruefully.) Most charismatic and less savory among them is her on-off boyfriend Milo (De Souza), who swiftly and aggressively identifies Jack’s schoolboy crush.
The love triangle that ensues is too wan to sustain even this brief film through an Instagram-fuzzy whirl of parties, trysts and nighttime fire-hockey matches — all soundtracked to the likes of Wolf Alice and Sigma, and seductively lensed by cinematographer Dirk Neil in stonewashed pastel hues. But Poulter, with his thoughtful mien and quizzical eyebrows, is interesting to watch even when the film noodles and navel-gazes: If Jack’s quandary is less sympathetic than it could be, Poulter’s quiet integrity goes a long way toward making it believable. Jodorowsky has a harder time animating the limp character of Evelyn, an archetype perhaps best described as “languid pixie dream girl.”
Instead, it’s supermodel-turned-actress Delevingne, handed an otherwise disposable role as a commune hanger-on, who clicks with Poulter and magnetizes the camera on the few occasions she delivers a line. Auds unaware of the film’s delayed path to release may be puzzled that the striking “Paper Towns” star isn’t the romantic lead here. To watch “Kids in Love” is to gain a palpable awareness of stars being born; it’s just that they, as kids are wont to do, have already moved on rather quickly.