When you’re 17, and white, and middle class in America, sometimes all that matters is what you’re doing next weekend. And if rent isn’t due until a week or so after that, well, things tend to have a way of working out.
In “Never Goin’ Back,” a delightfully irresponsible — but also refreshingly generous — girls-gone-wild romp from first-time feature director Augustine Frizzell (an indie actress married to frequent collaborator David Lowery), Texas besties Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell) want to go to Galveston and eat donuts by the beach. Everything else is secondary — except, to pull off even such a modest birthday getaway, these two high school dropouts turned minimum-wage diner waitresses are gonna need a bit more cash than they have on hand, which means hustling any and every way they know how.
Make no mistake: “Never Goin’ Back” is a blast, thanks to its high-energy soundtrack and the winning combination of its two infectiously charismatic leads (ridiculously skinny, model-gorgeous Morrone suggests a young Geena Davis, while feisty Mitchell is the picture of a Disney Channel star gone astray) and the lively attitude Frizzell brings to the party, treating her carefree heroines like a pair of old friends, rather than passing judgment on two girls who really ought to have been raised better — as opposed to sharing a house with their aspiring-drug-dealer brother (Joel Allen) and a pathetic dude named Brandon (Kyle Mooney) who seems determined to get in their pants.
True to its brand, indie distributor A24 acquired this cracked-out teeny-bopper fantasia at some point between Sundance (where it brought irreverent fizz to the fest’s Midnight section) and SXSW (where the director’s short “Minor Setback,” a sort of rough draft for this film, premiered in 2015). If anybody knows how to treat a movie like this, it’s the company that brought us “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring.” But why stop there? How great would it be if a savvy television development exec decided to get in on the action, too? Just imagine the shenanigans a pair like Jessie and Angela could get up to every week in a “Never Goin’ Back” TV series.
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Inspired at least in part by stunts Frizzell pulled when she was her characters’ age, this raucous parade of humiliation and embarrassment packs all the appeal of an outrageous anecdote hilariously retold by someone who can scarcely believe they ever did something so stupid. Like the time they showed up for work totally high on pot brownies, wearing badly wrinkled uniforms soaked in beer and bong water. Or that night they laid out and let the mosquitoes bite them from head to toe, in a misguided attempt to convince their boss they’d both caught chicken pox.
If this were a high-school movie, during the obligatory cafeteria scenes, these two wouldn’t be sitting with the mean girls or the outcasts; they’d be skipping school altogether. They call each other “dude” (as in “Dude, don’t freak out!”), and their half-baked schemes have “doomed to fail” written all over them, though we can’t help rooting for things to go their way, just once.
Instead, the situation just keeps getting funnier and more out of control. It’s not Jessie and Angela’s fault that, right after committing to working every shift they can until the vacation, they wind up having to spend days in a juvie holding cell. (Although it kinda was their cocaine the cops found smeared across their makeshift coffee table.) And are they to blame for the disgusting way men keep ogling them? (Although a creepy oldster is openly offended by how little they wear in public.)
But it’s hot, and they’re hot, and in their own exceptional way, Jessie and Angela are empowered feminist heroes of a sort. Sure, these girls just wanna have fun, but they take no disrespect from men. In fact, they recognize their sexuality as a kind of power, flipping what might have felt like a pervy exploitation movie in the hands of someone like Larry Clark into an empowered anthem of sorts, in which a nearly-all-female crew reclaims and critiques the male gaze. (Jessie and Angela, who share a bed and walk around arm-in-arm, may or may not be lesbians — and the point seems to be that it’s nobody’s business but their own in what joins “Superbad” as one of the all-time great films about friendship this side of the year 2000.)
The movie’s liberated spirit is reinforced by a signature soundtrack, ranging from Andrew Tinker’s ridiculously over-the-top rap songs to Zhora’s exhilarating “Lights” (which serves as a kind of unofficial theme song for these two party girls), capped with a couple of tongue-in-cheek tracks from the likes of Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton. In her amped-up but ever-charitable way, Frizzell ensures that we’re always laughing with her two hapless troublemakers, rather than at them. That applies even when they’re projectile vomiting in the stockroom of the diner where they work, or relieving a long-overdue bowel movement in a scene that earns its place in the gross-out comedy pantheon.
Move over, boys! Frizzell can be as raunchy as the best of them. But she also keeps this anarchic ride grounded, capturing the texture of small-town America, with its strip malls and fast-food joints. Granted, these girls have no class (just look how they behave when they finally do get their hands on a modest stack of bills), but they also have no shame about the social class they belong to. While hardly role models, they’re no worse than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, and at least they know the value of an honest day’s work. If they ever do make it to that beach, they will have earned it.