To be young, beautiful and in love isn’t as much fun as you’d like to think in “Love in Youth,” a minimalist, quietly lived-in first feature from Key West-based filmmaker Quincy Perkins. Following two lonely, feckless just-adults as they struggle to turn their initially magnetic connection into a workable relationship, this unassuming whisper of mumblecore may aggravate any viewers waiting for its capricious, uncommitted young lovers to, well, grow up. That may well be the point: Perkins has a soft, sensitive ear for how the inarticulacy of some teenagers reveals strong, surging, inchoate feelings in the pauses.
Not all of the nothing-doing in “Love in Youth” is equally rich in internal drama: At points, you can feel Perkins stretching and straining to build on his experience as a short-form storyteller. This is nevertheless a calmly promising debut that should travel further on the U.S. indie fest circuit following its close-to-home debut at the Miami Film Festival, before finding a home in the online-viewing realm. Meanwhile, for open-faced, serious-gazed leading lady Heather DeVoe — also a newcomer — Perkins’ film should rightly be a calling card for bigger assignments.
There’s a casual environmental specificity to “Love in Youth” that subtly and gradually fills out its slender story. (It’s the first film ever to be shot entirely in Key West.) While Perkins — acting nimbly as his own cinematographer — shoots proceedings predominantly in hazily intimate close-up, against outwardly unremarkable coffee shops, parking lots and boardwalks, the isolated island atmosphere creeps in through peripheral details, seemingly infecting the already ennui-inclined mood of newly arrived college freshman Heather (DeVoe). Wherever she has come from, and whatever she was expecting of the balmy, tranquil island, it has provided only a hemmed-in escape from home. As she vaguely assures her parents over the phone that she couldn’t be better, her tone conveys frustration that she has yet to either lose herself or find herself in her new surroundings.
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When she makes instant, electric eye contact with failed janitor Eric (Ricardo Montero) in a college bathroom, it seems for a hot minute that he might be, if not a way out, a way into some kind of feeling. “Love’s supposed to hurt,” she tells him as she administers a stick-and-poke tattoo on his back — Perkins’ teens speak in unexamined cliches, which feels altogether plausible. Should young love be this much effort, though? As they idly hang out, engaging in petty crime and half-hearted flirtation, it doesn’t take long for us — and, a little later, Heather too — to see that Eric is as emotionally cramped and exasperated as she is.
“I need to know what you think of me,” she repeatedly asks her not-quite-boyfriend, and he repeatedly murmurs his way around the point: He doesn’t appear to think much of anything, and so their frail friendship hovers on the edge of something else until it begins to wither altogether. Perkins captures how such relationships tend to break down through inactivity and incomprehension rather than anything more melodramatic, though that recognition can’t help but have a stolid, slackening effect on “Love in Youth’s” narrative: A late injection of moral conflict, following one of the couple’s joint acts of theft, flickers a bit too briefly.
Still, there’s something as bracing as the languid Key West air that permeates the film about an edge-of-adulthood study this staid. Avoiding the glossy contrivances and spring-breaker fireworks that often characterise the college experience on film, “Love in Youth” says something honest and simple about that stage in life when you’re at once desperate to be heard and unsure what to say. At one point, Heather and a girlfriend let down their hair for a lusty, drunken karaoke rendition of “Summer Nights” from “Grease” — a neat, sweet, ebullient articulation of young love and heartache that couldn’t be further from the depiction it gets here. It’s the most animated we ever see her: living out a candied fantasy version of her own life for a few minutes, with someone else’s words to lean on.