Kids These Days: 'Only the Young' and 'Prep School Negro'
Prep School Negro and Only the Young, both screening at DOC NYC, represent adolescents in ways old and new.
"Everything that goes into your life never comes out," says Skye. "Just like me." Garrison agrees: "Like a stain." She keeps going, "And no Tide can get rid of it." The teens are lying on the floor in her bedroom and as you first see them, they look upside down. A cut to a long shot from behind them shows a camera perched over them. "I got involved in being your friend," Skye concludes, "and now I'm stuck in your black hole, and you couldn't get rid of me if you tried."
Skye's idea of connection is like a lot of adolescents', intense, affecting, and so forever. She and Garrison live in Canyon County, California, one of those mostly sunny locales with palm trees and dusty desert in equal measure. As you come to see right away in Only the Young, they're typically, vaguely rebellious: he's a skater determined to improve their go-nowhere environment by building a half-pipe with his best friend Kevin, "so we can skate somewhere that no one knows about." Right, Kevin agrees, and with no adults in sight, they can "do whatever the hell we want out here, there's no one to stop us."
The film bears out this fantasy. Directed by Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, featured at DOC NYC, and opening in select theaters on 7 December, Only the Young documents, remembers, and imagines what it's like to be these three kids, smart white punks who think about the world and see their place in it through a lens that's simultaneously specific and indefinite. While they belong to their local Baptist church’s Ignition Skate Ministry, they don't so much preach as explore, occasionally meeting people at charity events but mostly hanging out at the auto shop, where they work on their boards and help out the mechanic Shannon, whom Garrison calls "way older than me." Shannon laughs and scratches his greying temple at this jibe, the three guys posed perfectly in Shannon's vintage car with pale green interior, boys in the wide back seat and Shannon at the king-sized steering wheel.
Other shots in the movie are similarly beautifully composed, skate ramps and shadows framing the boys' lithe, athletic crouches. In their bedrooms, where they build models of the ramps, they keep their boards close, balanced across their long white legs as they imagine what's coming next. One thing in the offing is a skateboarding competition in Phoenix, where Kevin has qualified: the cash prize might help pay for school, which is to say, a possible route out of Canyon County, but the more immediate end is the road trip to Arizona. Kevin likes to skate barefoot, a quirk that makes him locally legendary. Or at least legendary to Garrison.
This sort of short view shapes Only the Young, in the sense that the film offers repeated music montages and slow motion reveries, the kids at play in puddles and on sidewalks, a light blue sky long and low behind them. They've got issues, of course. Skye's dad is in prison, she lives with her grandparents, who are, she assures you, "awesome." Just so, Pappa appears on a stained beigey sofa as if to illustrate, a plastic blue pen in his lavender shirt pocket, remembering how they "got Skye when she was about three days old," when her mother lost custody. "We've had a lot of good times," Pappa notes, the camera revealing the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign he keeps over his workshop bench before it cuts back to Skye beside him, her nose ring prominent and wool beanie stylishly fixed on her streaked, short haircut.
Skye and Pappa's mutual admiration relationship with her grandfather serves as a non-explanation for her on and off again relationship with Garrison. The film doesn’t so much follow their ups and downs as it notes them in passing: he begins dating Kristen, Skye's discomfited, the Arizona adventure occasions more terrific photography, at the dinosaur park, the turtle farm, and a street show with fake cowboys and pistols. "Imagine yourself visiting here over seven centuries ago," the recorded tour voice prods the boys at a cliff dwellers' exhibit. Garrison yawns, Kevin glances at the camera, locusts trill. Here was a village, the voice continues, where inhabitants "experienced wants and needs, anxieties and fears, joys and sorrows, just as you and I, today." The storytelling couldn't be cornier, and the boys are duly unmoved. Cut to Skye's next trauma, her mom's Facebook friend request, which Skye decides to decline. "I think after 16 1/2 years," she explains, "Facebook isn’t the right way to contact someone." That said, it's the way, here, to make that point to her mom Lisa, her photo too brightly illuminated on Skye's computer screen.
Here and elsewhere, Only the Young tells stories by smart cuts and montages, by lovely compositions and poppy soundtrack choices. The connections might be framed by those Skye or the boys narrate, but they also depend on your associations, the assumptions you make about Baptist church groups or skate clubs, about California slacker types or white kids with piercings, as these might be tested or confirmed. It's good to be young, the film reminds you, when drama is rousing and stakes seem astronomical. The complications -- love and obligation, resentment and desire -- can be romantic or maybe romanticized, they're certainly confusing.
Such confusions might appear "universal." And in the sense that Only the Young presents teenagers sorting out their lives, that seems right. At the same time, however, this version of kids in motion looks completely unlike the one offered by Prep School Negro, screening at DOC NYC on 15 November. As its title suggests, André Robert Lee's look back at his adolescence asks questions about class disparities and racism, kids' efforts to fit in and also stand out, assumptions about what it means to be black or white or young.
Lee begins his journey by recounting his childhood, growing up in the ghettos of Philadelphia: his sister Robin Charlotte and his mother Gwendolyn Valencia still live there: an early visit home takes Lee upstairs to see his mom, increasingly incapacitated, her memory failing and her mobility limited. Lee's camera pauses on his mother, whom he says more than once didn't show him love when he was a child, and indeed, she looks awkward and disconcerted, then heads upstairs with him to his old bedroom, now "a storage room for hats and pocketbooks and shoes."
Prep School Negro (2012)
Following, the film tracks back and forth in time, as Lee examines his experience and asks questions about Charlotte's -- she was also at GFS, but felt less comfortable than he did and soon felt like she was watching him slip away. Sitting with a former teacher, Lee remembers points of crisis and identification, as when he was speaking with a white classmate and used to the word "ax." "If you 'ax' me, I'll bleed, Lee remembers the other boy saying. "It was one of those moments when I thought everything about me was wrong," he says now. To correct himself, he learned to "talk white," which opened up a whole other set of problems.
These problems - how an identity can be defined by others, how an identity can be offensive or threatening -- come into another focus when Lee interviews black students at GFS now. Confident and outgoing, Brea nonetheless tears up as she describes her own efforts to adapt to multiple locations, to feel comfortable at school and accepted at home. In class, Mike listens as his white classmates respond to a homework assignment, to answer the questions, "What does it mean to be white in the United States?" A couple of the white kids, aware of the camera, slouch or look away. When the teacher calls on one boy, he says he didn't know what to say, "I never thought about it." Another, Ben, declares, "I actually thought it was pretty easy to write about because there's nothing to write about, so I basically wrote that." At last the teacher and the camera turn to Mike, and then the whiteboard where the teacher transcribes his comments: "It’s a privilege to be white in the United States," he says. "You get respect automatically, you don’t have to earn it like other people do." The teacher nods and writes. The other students are silent.
Its hard to tell from this scene how anyone in the room might think about the experience -- the camera in their classroom, their differing perspectives. But the effect for you is clear enough: you're aware of Mike's tensions at school more generally, you see these repeat, in some other form, those Lee describes. It's not until late in the film that you're surprised, when Lee learns something about his mother's background and her desires for him. This changes his sense of self -- or maybe your sense of his self -- in a way that makes the rest of the film look different too. No matter how difficult his former environment at school, his past closeness with a white family, or his current strain with his sister, Lee now sees another identity, not his own, as complex and urgent and generous beyond comprehension. His mother's story, unknown when he was young, now shapes his youth all over again.