A Stylish, Young Black Love Story Loses The Plot [Sundance]

Feb 10, 2023

Brendon (Algee Smith) isn’t a bad kid. An aspiring artist living in Los Angeles, in his last month of high school, the pressures of his daily life, however, are beginning to overwhelm him. His mother, Janice (Sanaa Lathan), is not only working long hours to support the family, but she’s also with his loafing stepdad drug dealer (Mike Epps). Meanwhile, her precocious little sister and brother are mostly cared for by him. His life transforms when Cassidy (a breakout Sierra Capri) enters a convenience store bedecked in a bedazzled ski mask and pink fur coat to rob the joint. She immediately becomes attached to him, and the pair, in “Badlands” fashion, traverse their suffocating world.
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In Thembi L. Banks’ “Young. Wild. Free.” their young love winds Brendon toward catharsis. See, the soft-spoken Brandon is wound tight: He just lost his job at Burger Bank, the property taxes on his mother’s house are due, and his guidance counselor wants to get him to think about his future. In Brandon’s eyes, apart from his art, his prospects are limited. The weight on his shoulders is so heavy he becomes prone to loud outbursts. While Brandon tries to push his mother to continue taking her medication and restart her therapy sessions, one wonders if he needs the same help. 
It’s why the carefree Cassidy signifies a breath of fresh air. She lives her life through movie watching, making references to “Kill Bill” and “Reservoir Dogs.” And aesthetically, through her stylish direction, Banks wants you to know you’re watching a movie. She slows the action to the speed of molasses, has movies playing in the background—such as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “The Whiz”—and loves herself a canter angle. Similar to how the film visually unwinds, Cassidy wants Brendon to let go: They begin cruising in her bright red convertible through the Hollywood hills, they skip school, and even rob the soda machine. All the while, the bright and talented Brendon vocally rebels against his mom by getting into shouting matches with her, and he viciously confronts his stepdad. Throughout his descent, you get that sinking feeling that Brendon is on a road that most young Black men do not return from. 
Unfortunately, the thin scripting by Juel Taylor and Tony Rettenmaier obscures much of Brendon’s journey. You wonder why Cassidy is merely written as a manic pixie dream girl. You question why very little in Brendon’s world makes logical sense. Or why Banks continually reaches for a flashier style than she needs. The payoff to these queries does offer some clarity. But the twist lacks narrative precision. Rather than an earned turn, the lithe writing causes one to mistake Banks for a poor director. And even when one considers the pieces in hindsight, their incongruity raises far too many other questions.             
While the film’s interest in the mental health of Black folk is welcomed, you just wish it all landed. Because the idea of making a narrative that gestures toward a bleak ending yet subversively veers away from it by providing a different conclusion for a young Black man going through mental health issues in an apathetic white-guided system is fascinating. But mere fascination does not equate to a good movie. And despite the blithe humor, the committed performances—especially by Smith and Capri—and the vibrancy of their world (particularly the bright color palette and sad boy soundtrack), a workable whole is never formed. 
While a failure, “Young. Wild. Free” is one of those alluring failures. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not even without vision. Instead, the visual prowess and narrative daring—while not enough to like the film—are such that you’re immediately anticipating what Banks will do next. Because she has a voice, and at least she allows it to roam without inhibition. [C] 
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