'Riot Girls': Film Review

Riot Girls Still 2 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Ian Watson
An '80s pastiche without much punch.

In director Jovanka Vuckovic's world without adults, teens are ruled by varsity-jock tyrants.

Another entry in the mini-genre of low-budget films that would all but evaporate if you removed nostalgia from the equation, Jovanka Vuckovic's Riot Girls nods toward '90s pop-punk fashions but owes more to the teen adventures of the '80s. Imagining a world where a plague wiped out all adults and left kids to rule, it imagines little beyond that premise, with a very thin script supporting its us-vs.-them action. Lacking the charming eccentricity of a Turbo Kid or the compelling mood of many retro-horror successes, the pic has little to recommend it as a theatrical experience.

As an intro sequence designed like a comic book explains, a "deadly wasting disease" has emerged that targets only adults. The oldsters are all dead by the time our story begins, and in their absence, the town of Potters Bluff has been carved up by a river running through it: The west side is ruled by the Titans, who wear their high school letterman jackets and cling to jock-motivational mottos; the east side, beyond their rule, is connected only by a single-lane bridge. There, a gang of young survivors is kept safe, in what looks like a warehouse-size thrift shop, by Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois).

(About those survivors: Where are the really young kids? We see one elementary-age girl, but otherwise, the teens seem free of the burden of caring for infants or toddlers left behind by their parents.)

Jack is in the habit of ambushing Titans and stealing fresh water, but on one mission, he pushes his luck and is captured. So a rescue party is formed, with his sister Nat (Madison Iseman) teaming with her girlfriend, Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), whose mohawk proves there's plenty of time for hair care in the apocalypse. They're assisted by Sony (Ajay Friese), a westsider who fears the Titan reign and knows his way around their operation.

The jocks, naturally, make camp in the old high school, where Jeremy (Turbo Kid star Munro Chambers) is the supreme leader, with Todd (Darren Eisnor) his lieutenant. Chambers' appropriate hamminess is about the closest the cast comes to winking at the audience; elsewhere, performances are sometimes simply bad with no discernible layer of irony. Introduced with an overt Cobra Kai reference, the Titans are one-dimensional meanies who even get their own faux-Scorpions rock anthem. But aside from terrorizing their fellow citizens, it's not quite clear what their agenda is. If they have other kids enslaved and growing food, or are forcing them to go on dangerous missions to search for supplies, the movie doesn't show or hint at it.

Some pretty thin complications pad out the girls' rescue attempt, with one sore-thumb exception: Even in a film whose stakes are ostensibly life-and-death, the attempted rape of Nat at a checkpoint seems out of place — more suitable for a Red Dawn-style tale that takes itself more seriously. As it is, the scene seems present only to serve as a contrived reason for Nat and Scratch to fight briefly.

Moviegoers who were around in the '90s, of course, might well expect sexual assault and more to be directed at the protagonists of a movie called Riot Girls. But few Bikini Kill fans will recognize anything unusually feminist about Katherine Collins' script or the way Vuckovic brings it to life. Appealing cinematography and engaging use of split-frame comic-book transitions are the closest the film comes to the excitement of 1990s DIY scene-making; the rest is just derivative genre filler.

Production company: Clique Pictures
Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment
Cast: Paloma Kwiatkowski, Madison Iseman, Alexandre Bourgeois, Ajay Friese, Jenny Raven, Munro Chambers, Darren Eisnor, Evan Marsh
Director: Jovanka Vuckovic
Screenwriter: Katherine Collins
Producer: Lauren Grant
Director of photography: Celiana Cardenas
Production designer: Jennifer Morden
Costume designer: Bonnie Sutherland
Editor: Maureen Grant
Composer: Peter Chapman
Casting directors: John Buchan, Jason Knight

81 minutes