Only the Young: AFI Fest Review

An engaging, stereotype-defying portrait of American teendom.

Set in recession-wilted SoCal suburbia, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ nonfiction feature focuses on an endearing trio of teenage Christian punks.

The coming of age of the American adolescent, a perennial subject of fiction and nonfiction films, adds a fresh chapter with Only the Young, the debut feature by CalArts grads Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims. Their fast-moving documentary zeros in on three ultra-likable Southern California high-schoolers, following them through a succession of hairstyles and turning points. 

Tightly constructed while maintaining the loose intimacy of just hanging out, the sympathetic portrait of these Christian skate punks rejects easy labels. The economically distressed suburban setting makes for a fascinating tableau, and informs the note of anxiety that courses through the kids’ self-deprecating exchanges. Winner of the Audience Award for the Young Americans section of AFI Fest, the movie is destined to connect with audiences when it unspools theatrically, via Oscilloscope, beginning with a Dec. 7 New York release. 

Best friends Garrison Saenz and Kevin Conway, 16-year-old bantering skateboarders, at first come across as a sweeter version of Beavis and Butthead, but their smarts and earnestness are quickly apparent. They approach the potential teenage wasteland of Canyon Country — a section of the sprawling “boomburb” Santa Clarita, in the northwestern stretches of Los Angeles County — with a cross between mild jadedness and youthful resilience, not to mention a devotion to Scripture. The boys, who participate in a Baptist church’s Ignition Skate Ministry, are never preachy or ostentatious about their faith. 

The edgier Kevin’s involvement in a skateboarding competition in Phoenix, the original focus of the doc, occupies a small portion of the brief running time, ceding center stage to interpersonal and family matters. Romantic jealousies and confusion arise when the shy Garrison and sharp, self-possessed Skye Elmore, his on-again, off-again girlfriend, each start dating other people yet remain close friends. His new girlfriend is a “hip-hop-dancing liberal,” according to Skye, who is herself an all-American, Jesus-loving paradox, wearing multiple nose rings and placing a Brady Bunch photo on display in her room. More telling, though, is Garrison’s response after older members of the church step in to advise against the relationship with a nonbeliever. 

The filmmakers’ considerable access pays off in lighthearted moments (Kevin and Garrison as dueling Gandalfs for Halloween) as well as straight-to-camera confessionals. Skye, who was raised by her grandparents, faces especially daunting personal challenges with remarkable clarity and strength, although her toughness reaches its limits when foreclosure threatens her family’s home. 

Tippet’s nimble camerawork is alert to Canyon Country’s vacant and forsaken patches, its dirty unused swimming pools and running creeks. In an abandoned house overgrown with weeds, Kevin and Garrison are part-time squatters, dreaming of turning the property into a half-pipe park for skating and concerts. Exploring a derelict miniature golf course with Skye, Garrison notes wryly — in a way that encapsulates the film’s blend of darkness and cheer — that what was once the upscale venue’s waterfall is now just a fall.

Venue: AFI Fest (Young Americans)
Opens Friday, Dec. 7, in New York (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Production company: THEsaurus Films
With: Garrison Saenz, Kevin Conway, Skye Elmore, Kristen Cheriegate, Robin Levy
Directors: Jason Tippet, Elizabeth Mims
Producer: Derek Waters
Executive producers: Tim Garrett, Daniel A. Murphy, John Kaulakis
Director of photography: Jason Tippet
Music: Nick Thorburn
Editors: Jason Tippet, Elizabeth Mims
No MPAA rating, 68 minutes