Four teen girls teeter on the precipice of uncertain futures in Nick Richey’s debut feature, “Low Low,” as the budding auteur’s realistic style nicely complements the precise performances, giving each actor an empathetic path into her character’s psyche. While the narrative occasionally falters, the visceral way in which the writer-director captures his subjects’ triumphs and travails provides an unflinching portrait of modern teens on the fringes of society.
In the final days of high school, Ryan (Ali Richey) is understandably worried about graduating. There aren’t many prospects for a working-class teen in Vancouver, Wash. (which is “played” here by Los Angeles, a rarity). Her troubled home life, beset by a contentious relationship with her single mom Sylvia (Elaine Hendrix) and her mom’s revolving door of slacker boyfriends, has caused her to act out — a rebellion fueled by angst, drugs and booze. Surprisingly, she’s managed to show great potential with her schoolwork, impressing her teacher Dr. Ellison (Moniqua Plante). But when she’s encouraged to attend college, Ryan resists.
Ryan also frets about the fracturing of her tight-knit group of girlfriends — all of whom are also facing anxieties about impending adulthood. Cherry (Montana Roesch) is about to embark on a new collegiate lifestyle, leaving her loving boyfriend Memo (Adam Elshar) behind. Lana (Kacie Rogers) is attending a local community college, partially to keep a watchful eye on their friend Willy (Alexis Raich), whose cherubic innocence isn’t fooling anyone. Willy’s masterful at causing drama. Not only is she engaging in unprotected sex with classmate Cory (Tyler Chase), but the tryst has drawn the ire of his girlfriend Tanya (Savannah Stehlin).
Despite their trepidations, this girl squad is determined to spend what little time they have left supporting each other. Though these gals are engaging in hardcore drugs, drinking and other vices, their core value of friendship remains intact. Ryan sticks up for Willy in a school fight with Tanya, letting her fists channel her pent-up frustrations. During the subsequent investigation into this event, Willy, Lana and Cherry all vouch for Ryan. After the pals fail to gather enough money for a Plan-B pill for Willy, they confront Cory at his home, which adds some levity to the serious situation. Later, boosting two cases of beer becomes a group effort.
Richey conjures a snappy, deeply affecting energy through his collaboration with editors Jay Diaz and John Quinn. Their work combines with Heavy Young Heathens’ spry, stirring score, Pascal Combes-Knoke’s cinematography (which gives the calamity a radiating glow) and the actresses’ acumen to build a palpable feeling of comraderie. From the pep talk Cherry delivers to Ryan, in which the camera observes her hard outer shell being stripped away before our eyes, to the final scene involving Sylvia’s raw, honest and hopeful advice to her daughter, Richey’s instincts for when to linger on his performers and when to cut away for a reaction prove impeccable.
All four leads deliver strong work. Ali Richey laces her character’s testy temperament with a hint of the softened vulnerability she’s masking. Rogers brilliantly blurs the lines between Lana’s caustic and caring sides, while making her motivations coherent. Roesch’s sincerity shines through the darkened facets of Cherry’s personality. Raich infuses Willy’s strong-willed, attention-seeking persona with youthful naïveté and rube-like charm.
However, the feature loses some of its fizzle in the third act — and not for lack of effort by the performers. The material weakens greatly whenever Richey spreads on superficial layers. Cherry’s breakup scene doesn’t hold much emotional heft, and her story feels even more weightless once she reunites with Memo for one last fling. Lana’s crush on Willy provides an admirable LGBT-positive story thread, but unfortunately doubles as an unwelcome romantic comedy trope that doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no urgency behind the intimacy between all these gals, no pressing immediacy to their final hurrah. It unravels before their heartfelt goodbye.