“Everything that goes into your life never comes out,” says Skye. “Just like me.” Garrison agrees: “Like a stain.” Skye 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 assessment of their relationship — intense, affecting, and so forever — is laced through the film Only the Young, which tracks their experiences over a few months. Skye and Garrison live in Canyon County, California, one of those mostly sunny west coast locales with palm trees and dusty deserts in equal measure. As you come to see right away in the documentary, 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, showing both its thrills and its limits. Directed by Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, Only the Young records, remembers, and conjures a bit of 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. At least he’s 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 beige sort of 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. As the filmmakers work with their subjects, choreograph and develop their stories, the film recalls Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, another documentary that mixed metaphor and allusion with observation, that stretched the borders of documentary and fiction together.
Such stretching is made visible in the experiences of any of the kids, as they ride their bikes and boards or kiss and talk abut kissing, remember past adventures or imagine what’s before them. If these experiences sound familiar, they are also surprising, seen anew through the kids’ eyes. Only the Young appreciates what it means to be young, to be naïve and also skeptical, to have expectations and to resist them. It’s good to be like that, when you can, the film reminds you, to live fully inside each drama and see stakes as astronomical and daily dilemmas endlessly confusing. It’s good to be young, of course. It’s even better to share being young.