Director: Jovanka Vuckovic
Writer: Katherine Collins
Producer: Lauren Grant
Stars: Madison Iseman, Paloma Kwiatkowski, Ajay Friese, Munro Chambers, Alexandre Bourgeois, Jenny Raven, Evan Marsh, Darren Eisnor, Jake Sim, Atticus Mitchell
In an alternate 1995 where all parents are dead, two teen girls venture into a rival faction¡¯s territory to rescue their friend.
I wouldn¡¯t fight too hard if someone wanted to downplay my unfavorable opinion of ¡°Riot Girls¡± by arguing I shouldn¡¯t have watched it in the first place. You could make that case. More than once while watching the film, I consciously realized, ¡°yeah, this wasn¡¯t made with me in mind.¡±
Sure, ¡°Degrassi Junior High¡± was such an integral part of my upbringing in the ¡®80s that I stayed current on every episode all the way through ¡°The Next Generation¡± and ¡°Next Class.¡± (Points to ¡°Riot Girls¡± for shooting on the same set.) What can I say? I enjoy Canadian soap operas. Nevertheless, I acknowledge I¡¯m not the ideal target audience for ¡°Riot Girls,¡± which is worth weighing while reading this review.
At the same time, I don¡¯t believe being a middle-aged man automatically excludes me from ¡°getting¡± a movie just because it features teen themes. I can still connect with high school melodramatics as much as anyone who remembers being a misfit bullied by popular kids, annoyed by authority, and feeling like your face is on fire whenever you¡¯re within fifty feet of a classmate crush.
Besides, I¡¯m only five months older than director Jovanka Vuckovic, who is the reason I remained intrigued by ¡°Riot Girls¡± in spite of how it skewed. Vuckovic¡¯s standout segment ¡®The Box¡¯ stole the show in ¡°XX¡± (review here), by no means an easy feat considering the anthology¡¯s other filmmakers included Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, and Karyn Kusama. Seeing how her astute talent for creating killer genre entertainment could only break bigger, I eagerly anticipated Vuckovic¡¯s first feature film.
Unfortunately, we¡¯ll have to wait at least one more round to see what Jovanka Vuckovic can really do on a grander stage. Clearly the offspring of a compromised vision, ¡°Riot Girls¡± smacks of imagination sold scandalously short. Perfunctory research couldn¡¯t come up with corroboration. But I¡¯d wager ¡°Riot Girls¡± began as an even more ambitious project, possibly a TV or web series, whose limited budget required whittling until the final film resembled only a shadow of fatter fiction that never made it off the page.
¡°Riot Girls¡± takes place in the small town of Potter¡¯s Bluff, where a mysterious disease wiped out every adult. The children and teens left behind split into two factions: the poor outcasts on the east side of town, and the rich bro bullies in the west.
It¡¯s apparently 1995 too, although I¡¯m not sure how you¡¯d confirm that just by looking at the locations. I only found out about the alternate timeline year by reading up on the film after the fact. I then re-watched the prologue, which fills in backstory via animated comic panels. I still didn¡¯t see ¡®1995¡¯ specified onscreen anywhere. Maybe I missed it twice.
That leads into the movie¡¯s primary impediment to immersion. New characters, ideas, and side stories are constantly introduced. Screenwriter Katherine Collins evidently considered how geography, economy, and social hierarchy would work within this weird new world. But ¡°Riot Girls¡± barely has the budget to make Potter¡¯s Bluff look like anything more than an average neighborhood after a minor earthquake.
Unable to visually realize a fully detailed landscape prevents ¡°Riot Girls¡± from carving out a distinct tone. Comparatively, consider ¡°Turbo Kid¡± (review here) as an example dystopia where props, costumes, and concepts combine to create a setting whose unique mood can write its own rules. In ¡°Riot Girls,¡± atmosphere exists in a blander purgatory where fantasy and reality have a tougher time playing nice together.
For instance, The Titans, who are the preppy young men on the west side, identify themselves with matching varsity jackets. They even have formal ceremonies where new initiates receive their own wool and cowhide coats to signify seniority. This kind of conceit flies in something like ¡°The Warriors¡± since it suits that movie¡¯s sideways style, which carries a whiff of camp. Here, it¡¯s hard to believe 17-year-olds would collectively care about anything as silly as having signature letterman stitching. Because overt comedy isn¡¯t part of the movie¡¯s texture, these funky fits of unbelievability create snickers that wake you right out of the story.
Nat and Scratch, played by Madison Iseman and Paloma Kwiatkowski, constitute the main characters by virtue of qualifying as the ¡°riot girls.¡± Without using a stopwatch though, I feel like the duo has less screen time than the villains or Jack, the guy they¡¯re trying to rescue. Initial exposition establishes Scratch as a punk rock sh*tkicker, but does so superficially via her Mohawk, angry accompanying soundtrack, and habit of spray-painting or scrawling ¡°f*ck off¡± on any available wall.
Following some prologue fluff, Nat and Scratch share only two scenes between just the two of them. One is to have a big fight. The other is to make up. None of this is enough material to solidify attitudinal edginess or to create a truly moving relationship, and that¡¯s a problem for protagonists.
Instead of deeply developing its intended leads, ¡°Riot Girls¡± scatters its brain introducing additional people that don¡¯t have room to bloom in a 75-minute feature. Here¡¯s a quick list of some elements that come and go without providing a payoff:
? Nat and Scratch hiding a rescued dog from Jack.
? Jack having a concerned girlfriend, who appears to be an important authority figure, back at camp.
? Said girlfriend having a little sister who similarly isn¡¯t seen again following the first act.
? Jeremy, the Titan leader, keeping secret that he is afflicted with the gut rot disease.
? A boy named Bacon who runs a makeshift mechanic¡¯s yard.
? Two ¡®Mad Max¡¯ renegades who do Jeremy¡¯s bidding, but aren¡¯t respected by The Titans and don¡¯t wear the varsity jackets for some reason.
All of this might have built a cool comic book world in an episodic format, which I maintain is how ¡°Riot Girls¡± must have been originally envisioned. As a one-and-done film, everything feels unfocused, undercooked, and wavering in commitment to a clear creative concept.
On the upside, the wind I¡¯ve received of Jovanka Vuckovic¡¯s next project reaffirms reason to believe her best is yet to come. Undoubtedly hamstrung by having to work lean and limber, ¡°Riot Girls¡± isn¡¯t it. I¡¯ll hedge the overall score as a reminder the movie isn¡¯t meant for me anyway. Hopefully those more open to angsty teen tastes can find entertainment where I didn¡¯t. I wouldn¡¯t bank on it though.
Review Score: 50