The eternal cinematic quest to say something “real” about modern teenagers usually chases shock value or comedy, two things not much represented in “The Other Kids.” But this semi-improvised indie, shot on location in rural Northern California with non-professionals largely playing versions of their real-life selves, manages to feel considerably more genuine and relevant than most such efforts — in part because it lacks any imposed artificial agenda or tone. This latest effort from writer-director Chris Brown, who’s been making low-profile independent features for two decades now (since 1996’s “Daughters”), is unlikely to stir much more commercial interest than his prior works. But it’s a solid pick for fest programmers that could tempt more adventurous niche home-format buyers.
Spending a couple years casting teens and developing the film alongside locals in Tuolumne County (the principal actors are credited with “additional writing”), Brown arrived at a narrative weaving together a half-dozen young lives whose interconnectedness only gradually becomes apparent to the viewer. All seniors at small-town Sonora High, they include Joe (Joe McGee), who for lack of better options weighs joining the military, to the horror of college-bound bestie Kai (Kai Kellerman). Dealing with the painful breakup of her parents’ marriage, horse fancier Sienna (Sienna Lampi) finds solace in her relationship with Mexican emigre boyfriend Isaac (Isaac Sanchez) — though even she doesn’t know he’s here as an illegal, or that he squats in an abandoned RV. (A third bonded pair, Savannah and Hunter, hang out with all the above but are given comparatively little screen time.)
Orbiting outside this or any other circle of friends is loner Abby (Abby Stewart), whose tomboy ways are criticized by her parents and whose enthusiasm for target shooting raises worries that this might be headed toward a Columbine-type denouement. But Abby is intrigued by new transfer student Cricket (Natasha Lombardi), who cuts a nonconformist figure with her dyed-blue mohawk and myriad piercings. When the two young women finally breach their mutual isolation to communicate, it seems each has found a kindred spirit — and maybe more, although whether their attraction will develop into romance is left for viewers to guess.
“The Other Kids” is refreshingly well-observed on numerous levels, from the ways that teens can endlessly kill time (as in a scene where newly-met Cricket and Abby amuse themselves ridiculing clothes in a thrift store) to the naturalistic depiction of parental conflicts, hesitant future-planning, and extracurricular work. (Nearly all have after-school jobs in this far-from-wealthy community, and self-supporting Issac requires two.) While many films traversing similar terrain find their protagonists either vacuously inarticulate or artificially precocious, à la “Juno,” the central figures here actually talk about serious political or philosophical topics as well as everyday concerns, yet never seem line-fed by an older scenarist.
There’s no melodrama to Brown’s approach even when crises occur, such as Isaac facing possible homelessness. (There is, however, one weak narrative element: Kai’s problems aren’t well-defined enough to prevent his secret self-mutilations with a razor from seeming a mite gratuitous and sensational.) While it takes time for narrative to take hold, there’s scant fat in pic’s progress despite its seemingly loose, organic form and resistance to cleanly explicating each character’s circumstances as a more conventional feature would. (Brown calls his process “ficumentary,” incorporating vérité elements into a dramatic context.) Though “The Other Kids” refrains from conveying any obvious “message,” there’s an underlying sense that these youth face an adulthood full of uncertainties well beyond their individual, variably economically-depressed roots.
Performances from leads and support players alike are strong, reflecting a mutually trusting relationship between visiting filmmakers and the hosting small-town community. (Sonora itself has a population of about 5,000.) Brown’s own attractive lensing highlights a deliberately low-frills but polished assembly.