(This review contains spoilers - I will warn you when they appear)
RIOT GIRLS is probably one of the most bad-ass films I've seen in a while. Written by Katherine Collins and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (whose been making waves with her Netflix short XX), this post-apocalyptic horror film brings a punch of fun and a strong message to our audience. As a young person (aka a barely 21-year-old), I found myself attaching to several of the extremely timely topics that arise from this narrative.
The film is bursting with visual style with comic-book graphics to transition you between scenes and introduce characters, adding to the juvenile aura of the story. I also want to steal 90% of the costumes as I'm certain they would make the gods of rock and roll proud.
The film is set in an unnamed town in a world where all adults contract the dreaded 'black gut rot' before dying a horrific death (if that isn't a metaphor for growing up, I don't know what is). This means that the children and teenagers are left to their own devices, gradually separating via economic privilege with rich kids on the west side of town and the underprivileged on the east.
Of course, in the apocalypse, all bets are off... and normal teens turn into monsters. The west side lives under the iron fist of 'The Titans', a clique of jocks that are quick to turn to violence as a means of control. Contrasting their neighbours, the east lives with limited supplies but with priceless freedom.
The film primarily follows the journey of Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), two teen girls from the east side who are on a mission to save Nat's brother, Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) after he is kidnapped by the Titans. With the help of West Side rebel, Sony (Ajay Friese), their dangerous rescue mission will set in place a domino effect that will change both communities forever.
The characters are distinct and multi-layered, with most still filled with a child-like innocence and attitude that you'd expect from teenagers, making them likeable and somewhat realistic despite their speculative situation. Yet characters like Jack and Scratch both exhibit a seriousness and awareness that is sad to see in minors, since they shouldn't have to worry about getting viciously murdered by their peers.
What I loved about Scratch's character is that we didn’t have to delve into a long, tragic flashback or monologue to confirm that she is clearly traumatised by a horrid past and uses the 'don't give a f*ck' persona as a coping mechanism and as a means of protection. We just know due to little clues in her behaviour and dialogue. This is especially heart wrenching as many young people adopt this stance after experiencing trauma.
The most obvious message within the film is the exploration of privilege and the downsides to both extremes of privilege. The east side kids are without such luxuries like batteries, gasoline and decent shelter but they have many more freedoms than the kids of the west side who live in material comfort but are confined to the rules of their governing body. By placing this within the extreme circumstances of an apocalypse, we can easily see the disadvantages to both sides and what advantages there would be if both sides just worked together to benefit everyone.
Another aspect that came up within the film is toxic masculinity and the consequences of such. The west practically reeks of it as 99% of Titans are men and any other man/boy who doesn't fit into their perception of masculinity are outcasted as 'losers'. The 'values' of the Titans are cringeworthy and dangerous to say the least. The members preach and strive for Power, Strength, Respect. or rather, they use their POWER to take advantage of others, find STRENGTH in their ability to push others down, and demand RESPECT by inflicting fear.
Representing this within the context of 'high school' with the Titans/jocks being the principle of toxic masculinity was an interesting and clever choice. Titan 'Team Captain' Jeremy (Munro Chambers) is indirectly the perfect personification of youthful toxic masculinity. He's that douche that wears his football jersey all throughout university because he peaked in high school and he cannot expand his sense of self past that. Toxic masculinity isn't just old men in high positions, the ideology starts young and RIOT GIRLS shows the damaging effect it has on young men as well as those around them.
(warning, spoiler's ahead! - scroll past next picture to avoid)
Thankfully, there is some redemption for Jeremey's cousin, Devon (Evan Marsh) who throughout the film, desperately tries to maintain his position as a Titan. He frantically tries to shed his empathy and consideration for human life in in an attempt to meet the expectations set by his superiors. Yet, regardless of the horrific crimes he commits, he is never 'good enough'. This is also a great representation of how toxic masculinity is also harmful to the individual, as well as the people around them as Devon is haunted by his actions but ultimately takes the initiative to create change.
At the centre of the film is the blossoming romance between Nat and Scratch. The developing relationship between the two is well-paced and honestly adorable due to the bad-ass/cinnamon roll dynamic. However, the relationship seemed a bit undercooked at times which could've been solved if we added some more back story so there would be more foundation to launch the relationship off of.
(end of spoilers)
My only additional issue with this film is that it seemed a bit too short and slightly undeveloped. I wish more time was spend on the 'before' as I feel as if that would've helped establish the characters a bit more, especially sinceI do believe it was the uniqueness of the characters that really carried this film. Also, there were the occasional weak point in the writing, but I feel nit-picky when I say that as it wasn't an overbearing problem for me.
Overall, RIOT GIRLS is a must-see for those looking for a fun apocalyptic film with a strong message and plenty of style. It portrays its chosen social issues with an edgy flare that increases the meaning and worth behind the topic. Yet it gives the more sensitive issues the seriousness and respect they deserve, making for a heart-racing but fulfilling watch.
CLAIRE L. SMITH is an Australian author, poet and filmmaker. Her debut gothic horror novella, HELENA is due for release via Clash Books in October 2020.
(none of these images are mine)